Expansion of the Panama Canal has doubled its capacity and, as many predicted, is already revealing weaknesses in America’s water infrastructure. Rather than coming directly to Florida’s JaxPort this week, the Marshall Island flagged container vessel MOL Majesty went first to another port to offload some cargo so it could navigate the shallower waters in Jacksonville.
Dennis Kelly, Jacksonville Transportation Authority, says St. Johns River dredging is needed if the area is going to keep up.
He says the vessel, “Had to go up to Savannah first and lighten up the cargo because they have two more feet of water. That’s how critical it is. Ships don’t like to backtrack. It takes time, money and fuel, so it’s not a good business decision.”
Several ports have already begun deepening their harbors, while others await congressional approval.
Shipper’s groups say the U.S. needs to improve its ports if it’s going to keep farmers and other exporters competitive. Mark Seib, who’s on the United Soybean Board and Soy Transportation Coalition, says the Canal expansion also helps competitor nations such as Brazil and Argentina and the U.S. needs to improve and maintain Mississippi River and port infrastructure to keep American products competitive.
“We need to focus on improving our infrastructure, especially the locks and dams on our inland waterways. Panama has done an excellent job of maintaining and improving its infrastructure for over 100 years, and it’s time to step up the work on ours,” Seib says.
Illinois Corn Growers Association Field Services Director Jim Tarmann told a recent webinar that group’s main concern is the age of the locks and dams on the Mississippi/Illinois Waterway System and Congressional failure to fund upgrades and needed maintenance.
Tarmann says the river remains the most efficient way to move agricultural exports.
“A normal tow size in the Upper Mississippi River Basin is 15 barges or 900,000 bushels of corn. It would take 216 railcars or 1,050 trucks to carry the same amount of cargo. So we can see the advantages of safety, reducing the environmental footprint and reducing congestion.”
He also told webinar participants that the older locks, even if well maintained, are inefficient.
“This process takes anywhere from two to four hours from the time the barge approaches the lock and the lockage is complete. That doesn’t take into account the traffic or any problem with the lock itself, which have become less reliable every day. These delays are costing producers and other users of the river millions of dollars each year.”
(For more on the Canal expansion, see the Executive Director’s column in this newsletter.)
(Above) The Mississippi is often called a ‘multipurpose resource.’ In addition to recreational, environmental and economic benefits, the 9-foot channel on the upper river is important to the nation’s defense and played an important military role in WWII. Cargill shipyard on the Minnesota built ocean-going oilers for the Navy far from possible attack and was able to move them downriver to St. Louis for final rigging before the ships traveled to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Here the tanker USS Agawam and its tow lock through Lock and Dam 15 in November 1943, on its way to a long, ocean-going career.
From the Executive Director . . .
The New Panama Canal: A Risky Bet?
An engaging New York Times interactive article presents an interesting back story on how, in 2009, an unlikely bidder with a rock-bottom bid ($1 billion less than the nearest competitor’s) had won the worldwide competition to build a new set of locks for the historic Panama Canal – leaving a trail of possible under-performances and bad investments in its wake.
According to the article, the improbable victor, a four-nation consortium, Grupo Unidos por el Canal, toasted their win at a sleek Panama City restaurant and within days were facing the conundrum of how little money they had to complete a complex project on a tight schedule, using a multicultural team whose members did not always see things the same way.
Internal arguments soon gave way to work stoppages, porous concrete, risks of earthquakes and at least $3.4 billion in disputed costs – more than the $3.1 billion budget for the entire project.
Yet, despite the challenges, seven years later and nearly two years behind schedule, in 2016 the locks were declared ready to accept the new neo-Panamax generation of behemoth ships expected to carry much of the world’s cargos.
When echoes of the congratulatory celebration and speeches end, though, one inescapable fact will remain: The new canal’s future is cloudy at best, and its safety, quality of construction and economic viability are in doubt, an investigation by The Times has found.
In simple terms, The Times reported, to be successful, the new canal needs enough water, durable concrete and locks big enough to safely accommodate the larger ships. On all three counts, it has failed to meet expectations, according to dozens of interviews with contractors, canal workers, maritime experts and diplomats, as well as a review of public and internal records. “There is little room in the budget for execution errors or significant inefficiencies,” the analysts from Hill International wrote in 2010, adding, “This is a high-risk situation”.
The Importance of Gatun Lake
For almost 100 years, water from the freshwater lake has raised and lowered ships through the original locks and has provided much of the drinking water for the country. However, in early February of this year, the vessel-shipping world took notice of an ADVISORY TO SHIPPING, warning that Gatun was not in good health; at 81.75 feet above sea level, it was dangerously below its normal 85 foot level. The lake’s watershed runoff, said the Advisory was the second worst in history, rainfall last year being 36 percent below normal. This prompted the canal authority to instruct shippers to lighten their loads. Less than two weeks later they were told to lighten them more, and 10 days later, even more still.
The day after that, authorities issued instructions for the neo-Panamax vessels seeking transit they would not be able to carry much more than the smaller vessel carried in the old canal – hardly a good return on investment for shippers or the canal. El Niño was blamed for the drought and load restrictions were removed after several days of heavy rain.
Strangely, as a portent, two international banks had questioned the wisdom of expanding the canal without a new water resource, calling water availability “the principal project risk” according to a consultant’s report last year.
The second of failed-expectations risk is concrete that line the walls of the six mammoth locks forming the path between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: It should last 100 years and withstand the corrosive effects of saltwater in the locks. Unfortunately, cement-quality aggregate is rare in Panama and what little is available is of poorer quality than expected.
Faced with a too-small concrete budget, the winning consortium made adjustments and waited for the canal authority to approve the new concrete recipe. This led to a seemingly endless standoff with the canal authority ultimately saying “we wouldn’t talk any more about concrete”. When finally poured, canal officials faulted the consortium’s “concrete management”.
During 2014 water testing of the locks, photos and videos showed water gushing from concrete in one of the Pacific locks, extending across nearly the entire width of the lock according to a canal authority official.
Some days later the same official said the design, not the concrete, was at fault, and that the leak occurred only because one chamber was empty and the next was full. During normal operation, both chambers would contain water. Properly repaired, “We are confident the concrete will last 100 years,” said Mr. Quarta, the consortium’s CEO.
Lock Design and Tugboats
The third and final failed-expectation is lock design. The new locks are 1,400 feet long while neo-Panamax ships are 1,200 feet long leaving only 200 feet in the chamber for two tugboats, one fore and one aft of the locking vessel. The problem is that each tugboat measures nearly 100 feet each filling most of the 1,400 foot chamber.
For the tugboat system to work, the locks needed to be 328 feet longer and 40 feet wider concluded a feasibility study by the canal authority in 2003. The current size leaves little or no bailout room for tugboats at either end should a problem arise, noted Mr. de la Guardia, chief of the tugboat captain’s union.
In addition, Guardia said tugboats must contend with currents that result when saltwater and freshwater meet; the saltwater dives under and they fight each other until they reach equilibrium”, “it creates a current 20 to 30 feet below the surface, he said.
The mass of a ship, 122,000 tons, is going to run me over. With such a large surface exposed to the wind, the stacked cargo also acts as a sail, magnifying the tugboats’ challenge, said one captain.
An unusual yet serious tugboat quirk is that stern-first is an easier way to handle it when traveling in a straight line, according to a canal captain with 36 years of experience, Eric Viluce. The Spanish tugboat can do a 360-degree spin, can move sideways, as Viluce demonstrated by positioning his boat perpendicular to the vessel he was moving and keeping it there. But to go confidently in a straight line, bow first – that’s another matter, he said.
The Test Drive
According to The Times, on the morning of June 9 of this year, the training wheels came off as the inaugural ship the Baroque Valletta entered the first of three locks on the Atlantic side. With the official opening just two weeks away, canal officials wanted to be sure the locks worked as planned. And they were not disappointed as the Baroque passed through all three locks before anchoring in Gatun Lake in a history-making event. Unabashedly the canal authority quickly announced its accomplishments.
As it turned out however, the trial run was somewhat stacked for success. The Baroque fit easily in the 1,400-foot lock because it is only 836 feet long, not the 1,200-foot size of a neo-Panamax vessel. And it presented a small profile to the wind because, as a bulk carrier, it had no stacked containers. While only a limited success, the point was made nonetheless: the locks are operational.
Even with the successful, but limited, test drive to assess lock operations and performance, shippers are uncertain. “The Panama Canal situation has been very murky for a long time”, said Gerry Wang, CEO of Seaspan Corporation, which charters large container ships.
The Times’ Epilogue
The consequences will be wide-ranging if the canal does not deliver as promised, said The Times. American grain and soybean farmers and producers of liquefied natural gas, for example, may find it harder to sell to Asian customers. Asian manufacturers may forsake the struggling ports on America’s East Coast for those in the West. Or they, and ultimately consumers, will shoulder the added cost of going the long way around, through the Suez Canal.
It is entirely possible however, that the canal will work as intended: that the water will be found, that the concrete will last, that big ships will come, and that the Panamanian people will celebrate their historic accomplishment. That is certainly the hope, even among those who have privately or publicly expressed concern about the canal’s future. “We are determined to make this thing work,” the pilot union leader, Mr. Rankin said. “We have a compact with the country to make this thing work”.
Many scenic postcards of the Upper Mississippi River include a towboat and barges to add interest to the picture. Shawna Lode, Iowa tourism manager says the river and its locks and dams help make Iowa different from other parts of the country. “We have locks and dams on the northern part of the Mississippi. You’ll see abundant wildlife at all times of the year, even in the winter. It teaches about commerce and ecology, and it’s a great opportunity to visit small towns and mom-and-pop restaurants.”
Alcoa’s plant near Davenport took advantage of river transportation to move some huge equipment pieces to improve its Iowa plant. Each of the parts barged in weighs about 700,000 pounds and river movement was the only practical way to bring it to the Quad Cities area.
Rochester PostBulletin writer John Weiss recently paid a middle-of-the-night visit to the Corps of Engineers dredge William L. Goetz when it was in the Brownsville area. He says an unusual situation gave him the opportunity to talk to some folks who might otherwise have been busy. He says he wanted to know what the work was like and whether or not the crew enjoy their work. His conclusion: they do.