Orange County Branch Newsletter

June 2011

President's Message

Panama Vacation- A Civil Engineer’s Dream

There is nothing like a vacation to get you away from your day to day stress and routine and to energize you so you can return and feel rested but energized.  As I plan my annual vacations, I always research the location where we are going for interesting civil engineering projects or structures to visit.  My latest vacation was to one of the most amazing civil engineering projects in the world, the Panama Canal.  As a matter of fact, ASCE designated the Panama Canal as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. 

The Panama Canal (Source Wikepedia) (Spanish: Canal de Panamá) is a 77-kilometre (48 mi) ship canal in Panama that joins the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. Built from 1904 to 1914, annual traffic has risen from about 1,000 ships in the canal's early days to 14,702 vessels in 2008, measuring a total 309.6 million Panama Canal/Universal Measurement System (PC/UMS) tons.

One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the canal had an enormous impact on shipping between the two oceans, replacing the long and treacherous route via either the Strait of Magellan or Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. A ship sailing from New York to San Francisco via the canal travels 9,500 km (5,900 mi), well under half the 22,500 km (14,000 mi) route around Cape Horn.

The concept of a canal near Panama dates to the early 16th century. The first attempt to construct a canal began in 1880 under Frenchleadership, but was abandoned after 21,900 workers died, largely from disease (particularly malaria and yellow fever) and landslides. The United States launched a second effort, incurring a further 5,600 deaths but succeeding in opening the canal in 1914. The U.S. controlled the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it until the 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties provided for the transition of control to Panama. From 1979 to 1999 the canal was under joint U.S.–Panamanian administration, and from 31 December 1999 command of the waterway was assumed by the Panama Canal Authority, an agency of the Panamanian government.

While the Pacific Ocean is west of the isthmus and the Atlantic to the east, the 8- to 10-hour journey through the canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic is one from southeast to northwest. This is a result of the isthmus's "curving back on itself" in the region of the canal. The Bridge of the Americas (SpanishPuente de las Américas) at the Pacific end is about a third of a degree of longitude east of the end near Colon on the Atlantic.

The maximum size of vessel that can use the canal is known as Panamax. A Panamax cargo ship typically has a deadweight tonnage, DWTof 65,000-80,000 tonnes, but its actual cargo is restricted to about 52,500 tonnes because of draftrestrictions in the canal.

Before embarking on the trip, I started reading a book written by David McCullough, “The Path Between the Seas”, about the creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.  The book is considered one of the greatest chronicles of the creation of the Panama Canal.  The book gave me a great historical overview of all the challenges of building the canal and as I kept reading, it truly provided me with an understanding of what an amazing undertaking the building of the canal was.  These days, research has become so much easier with the use of the internet where we can view YouTube movies, such as historical movies of the construction of the canal and other resources commonly available.  So by the time you arrive at your destination, you’re almost ready for everything. 

A boat trip across the canal is a great way to appreciate the amount of work, excavation and on-going maintenance such as regular dredging that it takes to keep the canal functioning.  The Panama Canal Museum provides the visitor with an amazing overview of all canal related issues.  If you plan on visiting Panama, try contacting the office of protocol ahead of time and you may be granted a tour of one of the canal control rooms which still function in almost the same way as when the canal was built, along with some new technological advances. 

The Expansion of the Panama Canal (Third Set of Locks Project) is a project, proposed by the Panama Canal Authority(ACP), that will double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2014 by allowing more and larger ships to transit. Then-Panamanian President Martín Torrijos presented the plan on April 24, 2006 and Panamanian citizens approved it in a national referendum by 76.8% of the vote on October 22, 2006.

The project will create a new lane of traffic along the Canal by constructing a new set of locks. Details of the project include the following integrated components:

§  Construction of two lock complexes—one on the Atlantic side and another on the Pacific side—each with three chambers, which include three water-saving basins;

§  Excavation of new access channels to the new locks and the widening of existing navigational channels; and,

§  Deepening of the navigation channels and the elevation of Gatun Lake's maximum operating level.

As stipulated by the Panamanian Constitution, any project to expand the Canal had to be approved by the Cabinet, by the National Assembly and by a referendum. On Friday, July 14, 2006, the National Assembly unanimously approved the proposal. In addition, the Assembly passed a law mandating a national referendum on the proposal. The Panama Canal expansion referendum was held on October 22, 2006, the first Sunday at least 90 days after National Assembly approval.

On September 3, 2007 the Panama Canal expansion project officially started. Panama's then-president Martín Torrijos stated that the Canal will generate enough wealth to transform Panama into a First World country. The project is also expected to reduce poverty by about 30%, resulting in an 8% poverty rate in Panama afterwards.(Wikepedia).

During my trip, I saw a lot of excavation that is part of the canal expansion which is expected to be complete and the open in 2014 to celebrate the centennial of the original canal opening.  I was very impressed with the ecological protection that took place to preserve the areas around the canal at the time of construction, and that continues to take place to this day.  The canal and all of its challenges reminded me of the challenges we are facing to extend the 241 toll road and all of the debates that have been going on to prevent it from being constructed.  Our problem is much smaller in size and possible impacts, but it sure seems to me that if they were able to solve the problems to construct such a monumental project as the Panama Canal, we should be able to resolve our problems and build an alternate/additional route to the I-5 Freeway.

Locally, we held a joint meeting last month with APWA on emergency responses to some of the latest international disasters including those in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan.  CalEMA, USGS and other experts shared with the attendees those things that went well, as well as those that did not as well as what local agencies can do to prepare and be ready to deal with large scale disasters.  In addition, I presented on behalf of ASCE OC Branch a scholarship check of $1,500 to Christine Truong, of Cal State University of Long Beach, for her excellence academic records and for all of the extra-curricular activities and involvement in promoting civil engineering and volunteer work.  Christine and many other students competed and submitted applications for this scholarship so this year, we are recognizing one student with our branch scholarship and Christine is the recipient. 

APWA is preparing for the upcoming congress that will take place Aug 26-29, 2012 at the Anaheim Convention Center.  Many private and public partnerships will take place and will be needed to make this congress a success story.  Information on the congress can be found at For details, contact Natalie Meeks at 714-765-4530, [email protected]

Finally, we will be back to UCI for our June luncheon, which will be a joint luncheon with our Hydrology and Hydraulics Technical Group (HHTG).  Our presenter is Phil Jones, Manager of OC Public Works/OC Flood’s Design unit and will be providing a presentation about the on-going San Juan Creek and Trabuco Creek Levee Protection projects including its challenges and storm-caused failures to the existing facilities.  We look forward to seeing you at our upcoming luncheon.