Drought Forces Panama Canal Authority to Lower Vessel Draft Limits

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has been forced to lower the maximum draft of vessels transiting the expanded Panama Canal’s Neopanamax locks due to an ongoing drought.

Despite implementing water-saving measures, the level of Gatun Lake has been falling faster than anticipated, putting pressure on the critical shipping route, the ACP said.

The first 11 days of April saw precipitation levels in the Canal watershed plummet to approximately 70% below the historical average, with the water supplied by rivers to the watershed falling 80% below average. In response, the ACP has announced updated maximum drafts for the Neopanamax locks in Advisories to Shipping A-14-2023 and A-16-2023.

Effective April 19, 2023, the maximum authorized draft for vessels transiting the Neopanamax locks has been set at 14.48 m (47.5 feet) Tropical Fresh Water (TFW). Further reductions will take effect on April 27, May 5, and May 12, bringing the maximum authorized draft to 14.02 m (46.0 feet) TFW.

The ACP reminds that vessels must adhere to the maximum authorized draft at the time of transit, warning that waiting times for transit can vary, potentially causing a vessel to arrive in compliance with the maximum allowable draft but then be subject to a draft reduction while still awaiting transit. The ACP therefor advises that waiting times should be factored in when planning transit at or near the maximum authorized draft upon arrival.

The ACP will continue to closely monitor the level of Gatun Lake and provide timely updates on future draft adjustments.

This year’s draft restrictions mark a stark contrast to last year’s season, which allowed the ACP to keep a maximum draft of 50 feet thanks to precipitation and water-saving practices during the dry season.

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