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Blast Inaugurates Panama Canal Deepening

The presidents of Brazil and Panama prepare to set off the initial blast in the canal deepening project.

The presidents of Brazil and Panama prepare to set off the initial blast in the canal deepening project.

Water rises in the Panama Canal as the fragmentation blast is detonated.

Water rises in the Panama Canal as the fragmentation blast is detonated.

Brazil President Cardoso launches Panama Canal channel deepening project

On March 6, Brazil President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Panama President Mireya Moscoso launched the Panama Canal's channel deepening project by setting off a spectacular blast that marked another milestone in the famous waterway's history.

President Cardoso's visit is part of an effort to strengthen commercial ties with Panama.

Panama Canal Authority (ACP) Administrator Alberto Alemán Zubieta pointed out the importance of this project for the waterway's efficiency and the service it provides to the world maritime industry. The fragmentation blast symbolized the beginning of a seven-year, one meter (3-foot) channel-deepening program that is the first major improvement project scheduled by the Panama Canal in this century.

The project's goal is to increase Gatun Lake's water storage capacity by 45 percent and augment the Canal's watershed output by 300 million gallons of water per day. Deepening the channel will benefit Canal customers by enabling more efficient draft administration and reducing the impact of water shortages on shipping. Additional storage will also permit meeting long-term demand for potable water.

Approximately 6.7 million cubic meters will be dredged. Although the deepening will only be done along the navigation channel, it will, in effect, increase the lake's entire surface storage area, which represents a much greater volume than what will be excavated. The deepening will augment the Canal's total water reservoir volume, which includes Gatun and Alhajuela Lakes.

Vessels transiting the Panama Canal use 52 million gallons of fresh water in every transit.

The ACP is implementing more rigorous water conservation and management measures, given the increasing demands caused by growing populations adjacent to the Canal watershed (Panama, Colon, Arraijan, and Chorrera) and anticipated long-term traffic growth. The water storage of Gatun Lake is two meters (six feet), from its maximum 26.7 meters (87.5 feet) above sea level up to its minimum operating level of 24.8 meters (81.5 feet). The Panama Canal navigation channel has a width between 192 and 305 meters.

The bottom of the channel is at elevation 11.3 meters (37 feet), but when the deepening work is completed, it will be at 10.4 meters (34 feet). To guarantee that the channel bottom elevation is above 10.4 meters, it will be dredged to an elevation of 9.8 meters (32 feet), known as dredging tolerance.

The deepening will be completed using available ACP resources. The project will require drilling and blasting for rock material. For this project, the ACP's drillboat Thor, hydraulic dredge Mindi and dipper dredge Rialto M. Christensen will be employed.

The deepening project will help the Canal maintain existing reliability levels. However, planning is now underway to prepare the waterway for future shipping needs. A long-term Master Plan is being prepared to roll out a progressive, time-phased program of expansion projects that will parallel Canal traffic growth. The ACP plans to provide continuous service to customers and keep the waterway at the forefront of world trade routes.

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