William P. Doyle Surveys Construction Sites of Expanded Panama Canal; Provides Latest Updates - Federal Maritime Commission
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William P. Doyle Surveys Construction Sites of Expanded Panama Canal; Provides Latest Updates

April 14, 2014

Contact: David Tubman, Counsel to Commissioner Doyle

Commissioner William P. Doyle with U.S. Ambassador to Panama, Jonathan D. Farrar

Commissioner William P. Doyle of the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission surveyed the construction site on the Pacific-side of the expanded Panama Canal during the week of April 6, 2014.

Commissioner Doyle stated: “I would like to thank Jonathan D. Farrar, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Panama and his staff for working with my office organizing meetings with the various agencies and stakeholders in Panama.” He continued, “I really appreciate the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) executives and staff taking the time to explain the mechanics of the existing canal and for walking me through the construction sites of the expanded Canal—special thanks to Ilya R. Espino de Marotta, Executive Vice President Engineering & Program Management ACP, and Esteban G. Saenz E., Executive Vice President, Executive Vice Presidency of Operations ACP.”

FMC Commissioner William Doyle and Ilya Espino de Marotta EVP Engineering & Program Mgt. Panama Canal Authority

Based on viewing construction sites of the expanded Panama Canal and the information provided by ACP executives and staff, Commissioner Doyle reports the following:

As of the beginning of April 2014 the completion percentages are as follows:

  • Pacific access channel 82% complete
  • Pacific Entrance dredging 100% complete
  • Gatun Lake and Culebra Cut dredging 86% complete
  • Design and construction of the third set of locks 67% complete
  • Atlantic entrance dredging 100% complete
  • Raising Gatun Lake’s maximum operating level 69% complete

The Panama Canal is about 48 miles which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The vessels passing through the Canal enter the channels and are raised through a lock system up to the level of the man-made Gatun Lake. By opening the gate at one end of the chamber, the water levels between the lock and the connected body of water equalize, allowing the ship to pass from one water level to another.

The Panama Canal requires three chambers in each lock complex to achieve balanced water levels for ship passage. Once the vessels travel across the lake and reach the other side of the Canal, the process of equating the water levels is reversed so the ships may return to sea level and be released into the Ocean.

Third Set of Locks—Water Saving Basins

Water Saving Basin Intake – Discharge Feeds to the Culverts

The new locks, constructed on both the Pacific and the Atlantic sides, will use less water than the existing locks. Each complex will feature three chambers with three water-saving basins per chamber, a lateral filling and emptying system and rolling gates.

Inside the Chamber Culvert Commissioner Doyle Receiveing Construction Update from EVP Engineering & Program Mgt Ilya Moretta


The existing locks on the Canal do not utilize water saving basins. Thus, the filling and emptying system works through a series of ports (manholes) located at the bottom of the chambers. As the locks fill and empty, the excess water used to fill or empty the chambers are supplied or discharged back into the lake or the ocean.

The new locks on the expanded canal are designed to operate with a system of lateral ports, called culverts, which are located in the chamber’s wall. These massive culverts are wide enough to allow the transit of two railroad lines. The new lock system will operate by gravity feed (the existing locks are gravity fed as well). These water-saving basins are the same length as a chamber — 1,400 feet. However, the depth of each basin is 8 feet. These water savings basins, once operating, will be the largest in the world. And, it is anticipated that with this system, the lock operations will reuse roughly 60% of the fresh water that is consumed. The existing Canal utilizes about 2 billion gallons of water per day—so the water saving basins are needed because the consumption rate for the expanded Canal will be double the existing Canal’s usage.

According to the Panama Canal Authority, with the lateral filling system, each lock chamber will be able to fill in 10 minutes when the water-saving basins are not in use and 17 minutes when in use.

Rolling Gates

Rolling Gate Recess Pacific Side Expanded Panama Canal Project

The rolling gates for the new locks move in and out of gate recesses. They will roll on two sets of wheels that travel along supports and crane rails located along the recesses and the bed of the lock. The wheels are located diagonally opposite each other and support about 10% to 15% of the weight of the gate. The rest of the weight will be “floated” in buoyancy chambers.

In all, the new locks will require 16 rolling gates. The gates are operated by a winch and motor system. Thick wire ropes are used to pull the gates in and out of the recesses. Importantly, the new rolling gates do not need to be removed and transported to dry-dock for maintenance and repairs (unlike the gates on existing canal). The ability to roll in and out of recesses in the chamber allows for greater flexibility in the ACP’s maintenance program. The sealed recesses create their own dry-dock per se where maintenance and repairs can be conducted on the gates. In addition, having a pair of gates in each chamber provides a safeguard for lock operations. While one gate is being repaired vessel traffic can continue through the functioning gate.

Excavation of the Navigation Channels

To connect the new locks with the current Canal channels, a 2-mile access channel is required on the Atlantic side. The Pacific side requires two access channels in order to connect the lock with the channel to Gatun Lake, as well as to the entrance from the sea. To accommodate larger ships, the width of each channel is 715 feet. Furthermore, the existing channels must be dredged to accommodate the larger vessels. The sea entrances on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides will have to be widened to at least 740 feet and deepened at least 51 feet below the level of the lowest tides.

Pacific Access Channel

Excavation of a new channel to connect the new Pacific locks with Culebra Cut is required. The project will result in the excavation of nearly 1.7 billion cubic feet of material. This project was divided into four phases. The first three phases have been completed.

With respect to the fourth phase, the required depth for the navigation channel has been reached. Construction continues on a 1 ½ mile long dam necessary to make up for the 23-foot level difference between Miraflores Lake and the Pacific Ocean.


The expansion program includes dredging projects on the entrances of both oceans, Culebra Cut and Gatun Lake. The actual deepening and widening activities on the Atlantic and Pacific entrances have been concluded.

Pacific Entry Dredging

This project consisted of the widening and deepening to about 50 feet below mean low water level of the Canal’s Pacific entrance navigational channel. The work entailed dredging 307 million cubic feet of sub aquatic material.

Atlantic Entry Dredging

Dredging the 8.6 mile – long channel for the new Atlantic entrance called for the removal of approximately 606 million cubic feet of material. The channel was widened from its original 650 feet to 740 feet. In addition, the ACP decided to deepen the channel beyond an originally anticipated 51 feet to a depth of about 53 feet.

Gatun Lake and Culebra Cut

This project calls for the removal of approximately 1 billion cubic feet of material to straighten the curvatures of the Culebra Cut. Culebra is the narrowest part of the Canal. Therefore, deepening and widening of the navigational channel in Gatun Lake is necessary.

In 2011, dredging and excavation work to create the north entrance to the new Pacific Access Channel was completed. The flooding of the area was conducted late in the same year. Since, 2011, dredging in the northern reaches of Gatun Lake has also been completed. And, therefore, according to the ACP, the Culebra Cut straightening project has been completed.

Raising Gatun Lake’s Maximum Operating Level

Standing in Expanded Panama Canal Chamber Pacific Side Construction Site

Gatun Lake is part of the Canal’s shipping channel, serves to generate hydropower, and is a water source for communities located adjacent to the waterway both in Panama City and Colon. Its dam and spillway structures also provide critical flood protection for the canal and surrounding region. The spillway is the primary hydraulic outlet from Gatun Lake to the Chagres River. Its purpose is to control the lake level, meet the water supply and navigation demands and to protect Gatun dam, the Gatun and Pedro Miguel Locks and other facilities around the lake shoreline from flooding. The ACP’s plan is to raise Gatun Lake ´s maximum water operating level from 87 ½ feet, to about 90 feet to improve the Canal ´s water supply. This improvement is intended to increase reservoir capacity by approximately 5.8 billion cubic feet of water. As part of this project, the 14 gates of the Gatun spillway have been extended and two additional gates were constructed.

Next Steps: Finish Construction, Pilotage Training


FMC Commissioner William P. Doyle Exiting from the Culvert Port into the Expanded Canal Lock Chamber

The construction continues. According to ACP officials the expanded Canal is on target to be operational by December 31, 2015.

The Panama Canal Pilots have been training on a full mission bridge simulator since 2011. In fact, in September 2011, the 13,100 TEU containership, Maersk Edinburg, maneuvered into the Canal’s new locks for the first time in a simulation exercise designed to help validate new pilotage and maneuvering procedures. At this time it appears the Atlantic side lock and chamber system will be completed first. According to ACP officials, once completed, the Pilots will perform several months (4-6 months) of actual shipboard transits through locks—into Gatun Lake—and back through the locks into the Atlantic. At this time, Canal Authority officials are looking to secure a size-appropriate training vessel for the program.