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Canal expansion salinity studies

Propaganda, studies differ about Gatun Lake water quality
by Eric Jackson

The fundamental claim, made repeatedly at public expense for public consumption, is contained on page 55 of the tabloid "Propuesta de Ampliacion del Canal de Panama" that was so ceremoniously delivered to President Torrijos at ATLAPA on April 24 and inserted into the daily newspapers in the following days. "The third set of locks equipped with water-saving basins will not affect the water quality in Gatun and Alajuela [Madden] lakes, nor in their tributaries, even when they function at their maximum capacities."1

Time and again in such face-to-face debates with critics in which the "yes" side has been willing to tolerate, and especially in settings at which no contrary voices are allowed, the Torrijos administration, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and the other supporters of the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan to expand the Panama Canal have blasted the skeptics for not having read the studies2 upon which the proposal is said to be based, for disrespecting those who conducted the studies, and generally for being knee-jerk opponents of all progress.

It turns out, however, that with respect to water quality in Gatun Lake, the ACP has misrepresented the contents of the studies most favorable to the plan that it's backing and has suppressed other studies that it commissioned and came up with results that the canal management didn't want to hear.

Notwithstanding the categorical claim that water quality would not be affected by proposed new locks, the principal study on which the ACP relies, a November 2005 work by the Dutch company WL Delft Hydraulics, explains that:

The salt concentration of the water in the water saving basins is, generally, also higher than the water in the adjacent higher lock, causing less dilution of the water in the receiving lock chamber. The effect of water saving basins is thus a greater inflow of salt water into Gatun Lake.

*     *     *

One difference also to be mentioned is that the future third lane bypasses Miraflores Lake. At present, Miraflores Lake acts as a salt water buffer between Miraflores Locks and Gatun Lake and damps off the salt concentration variations in Pedro Miguel Locks. This damping effect will not occur in the future Post-Panamax Locks.


Graphic from the DHI "study of studies," showing the principle of salt infiltration from locks with water-saving basins into Gatun Lake. The "forebay" is Gatun Lake. The dark blue on the graphic represents fresh water. The other colors represent layers of brackish water of varying salinities. When the lock chamber fills, the gate opens and the fresh water of Gatun Lake mixes with saltier water from the locks.

The annex to the tabloid that the government distributed to the public lists nine studies about how canal expansion may affect Gatun Lake water quality. Two of these are by the US Army Corps of Engineers, one by the Louis Berger Group, one by URS Holdings, three by WL Delft Hydraulics and one is a "study of studies" by DHI Water & Environment.

However, DHI's review of studies doesn't address most of the water quality studies in the list. It addresses four studies by Delft, rather than just the three listed in the government's propaganda --- listing those studies in a way that refers to a fifth Delft study that was not considered, and ignores all of the other entities' studies. And then there's at least one other water quality study, done for the ACP and the Inter-American Development Bank by Wpsi, Inc.

Why might the ACP and supporters of the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan want to ignore Wpsi's "Feasibility Study Report, Panama Canal Lock Water Reclamation Project, Panama Canal, Panama, July 2002," which was written by Paul La Bonte and Wayne W. Spani?

If one is charitable to the "yes" campaign, one might note that it has an inherent conflict of interest in that it offers its services in setting up a system to mitigate the salt water infiltration problem. One might also note that the solution that Wpsi suggested, the installation of desalinization equipment in the new Miraflores Locks and a reverse osmosis system in the new Gatun Locks, would be extremely expensive and would also slow down the operation of the new locks.

But the ACP would also want to point away from a study that warns of serious salt water infiltration into Gatun Lake, and that the canal expansion project using locks equipped with water-saving basins would produce a "shortfall in municipal and industrial water production.... The estimated shortfall by 2010 is 119.5 million gallons per day...."

There may be other reasons why, despite listing the US Army Corps of Engineers studies and the ones by URS and Louis Berger, none of this research figures in the DHI "study of studies" that was the last word in the ACP's investigation of the water quality issue.

But from reading the Delft and DHI documents, there arises the strong suggestion that the problem for the backers of the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan is that the studies most favorable to their side say things that they don't care to admit to the Panamanian people and that those studies have been themselves manipulated in some instances and misrepresented in the end.

Delft's last study, which got into various strategies to mitigate salt water infiltration, notes that the problem is most severe with downlockages:

...(i) in the semi-convoy mode of operation the empty lower lock chamber (downlockage) contains more salt water than at uplockage when the ship is in the lower lock chamber, and (ii) after the leveling up the next ship enters the lock chamber (downlockage) more salt water is transferred in the upstream direction because of the water displacement of the ship.

Among the various options to minimize this problem, Delft has recommended and the ACP has accepted the "flushing" method. Periodically, probably at least after every downlockage, fresh water from Gatun Lake would be run through the locks and the brackish water from the basins would be dumped to get the salt water out of the locks system. However, the study points out, the various possible flushing strategies have tradeoffs in delays in use of the new locks and loss of water from the Gatun Lake, and in any case none of them are completely effective at keeping salt water out of the lake.

A chart from the final Delft study. The graph on the left end is the salt infiltration into Miraflores and Gatun Lakes as it now is. Notice that Miraflores Lake is already pretty brackish now, and that there is presently just a little bit of salt infiltration into Gatun Lake. At the right of the chart showing the current situation, Delft shows what it would be like using one, two or three water-saving basins with no mitigation measures. To the right of that are charts showing what the saltwater infiltration would be like using various methods to reduce it. In every case, the intrusion of saltwater into Gatun Lake would rise precipitously in the event that the new locks are installed.

Gatun Lake already gets a little bit of sea water, and there are also the occasional marine fish who make their way into the lake through the locks, generally for just as long as they realize their mistake and get out as quickly as they can. The problem is not a total poisoning of one of the world's larger artificial lakes the moment that salt water gets in. The problem would be a cumulative process, in which the lake gets increasingly brackish to the extent that sensitive species like water lilies can no longer thrive there, then other less choosy species are affected, with the possible eventuality that the liquid around the water treatment plants's intake pipes becomes too saline for human consumption. So how long would such a process take, and how would it work?

Delft, which has experience managing these sorts of problems in Europe and uses what's called the "SWINLOCKS" mathematical model to predict salt water intrusion through the locks, makes a frank admission that the ACP has attempted to conceal with its blanket denials of any water quality problem:

Since the simulation model SWINLOCKS is not able to compute the time-dependent dispersion of salt water into the lakes, the computed volume-averaged salt concentrations do not provide a picture of salt water concentrations in the lakes. It is however most likely that strong variation of the salt concentration will occur in Gatun Lake and Gaillard Cut.

*     *     *

It is doubtful however, whether these very complicated computations are fully feasible....

Thus, Delft concluded, "there is still a need for further studies." It recommended further research, using both mathematical and working scale models, before adoption of the final plan that became the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan.

This advice, however, was not taken by the ACP. Instead, DHI was hired to do a study of the studies.

The resulting 48-page document, delivered by DHI to the ACP in November of 2005, would be striking in its appearance to an experienced editor, or to a college professor on the lookout for "cut and paste" plagiarism by unethical students. Just by the various appearances of the different pages and sections, the "study of studies" appears to have been edited after issuance in its original form. Moreover, it has contradictions like a Section 5, which starts on its 33rd page, entitled "Further studies," many of which by their very nature involve testing and monitoring of what happens after a third set of locks is built and put into operation, yet, on its 31st page, in an inserted comment, states that "the analysis presented in [Delft's] Report F of mitigation schemes must be considered complete."

The dates cited for when said Report F and DHI's study of studies were submitted are also odd --- the latter is certified to have been delivered to the ACP on November 15, 2005. The former is dated April 2005, but stamped as received by the ACP on November 17, 2005. How is it that DHI could deliver any reasonable report on a study that wasn't delivered until two days later? The suspicion that this situation raises, along with the different page appearances and apparently incongruous comments within the DHI report, is that the ACP sent these documents back to their authors for more politically palatable revisions.

Everything is not always what it appears to be. There are many months to go before Panamanians will go to the polls to decide the fate of the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan. The ACP and the government will have their opportunities to explain the apparent discrepancies between their public statements on water quality issues and what the ACP-commissioned studies say. But the time when folks like the ACP's José Barrios Ng can get away with going before a public forum, denouncing those who criticize the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan "without having read it" and making purportedly patriotic appeals for people to "honor this army of Panamanians" who conducted the canal expansion studies by taking the government's word for things does seem to be over.



1. Madden Lake, up the Chagres River from the Canal, is a red herring with one possible exception. The caveat is that if the new locks make Gatun Lake water, which supplies the needs of about half of Panama's population through the Miraflores and Mount Hope water treatment plants, too salty for human consumption, then it may be cheaper to switch the water source to Madden Lake than to fit these water plants with desalinization equipment. In any case, this reporter has yet to find a study that talks about how the proposed new locks might affect Madden Lake or any tributary of that body of water or of Gatun Lake.


2. There are some 55,000 pages of studies, which have been posted on the Internet with an anarchic system of indexing to the extent that any such thing can be said to exist, and in long PDF formats that take longer to download than most people's computers and web connections can handle. Most of the pages are published in English, a language that most Panamanians do not read with any fluency. It's highly unlikely that President Torrijos or any member of his cabinet, any of the legislators who will consider the proposal or very many voters will actually read more than a tiny fraction of those 55,000 pages. This reporter, with help from some folks with fast computers, broadband Internet connections and almost unlimited time to download long documents, has read some 700-some pages, mostly concentrated on the issue of salt water infiltration into Gatun Lake via the new locks.


Also in this section:
Salinity studies don't jibe with what the ACP says about them
State-owned Chinese shipping company's CEO endorses Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan

University of Panama forum on environmental aspects of canal expansion

Panama's new whaling policy in line with IWC majority

Business & Economy Briefs

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