A small farmer conserves water for the Panama Canal drop by drop

José Vargas, who has dreamed of having a coffee farm since he was 11 years old, has not only realized his dream. He knows that the sustainable agriculture methods he practices on his land in the Panama Canal Watershed contributes to the nation's water supply.

The 50-mile-long canal, which dissects Panama, carries vast quantities of water every year. But if there isn't enough of the precious liquid in the watershed, it not only jeopardizes the drinking water supply for Panama's three biggest cities and electrical power generation, but it also threatens ship travel through the waterway, said Angel Ureña, who is the Panama Canal Authority’s manager of environmental assessment.

This year, water was so short because of lingering effects of the 15-month El Niño phenomenon that the Panama Canal Authority imposed three sets of draft restrictions on canal traffic, meaning some ships had to carry less than full loads so they could meet depth limits.

Although the rains recently started in Panama and scientists have officially pronounced the end of El Niño, the canal will continue to closely monitor and manage water levels.

This El Niño, which also triggered drought in Africa and India and a particularly active Pacific hurricane season, was one of the three worst episodes on record of the weather phenomenon that is caused by unusually warm currents in the Pacific Ocean.

“This was the worst El Niño we’ve seen in Panama in 100 years,” said Ureña. “Water is already a big issue here and with El Niño we have to be even more concerned.”

The canal authority lifted all draft restrictions on June 8, but El Niño came dangerously close to impacting the grand opening of the expanded Panama Canal on June 26. The expansion, which includes a new set of locks designed to handle longer, wider and heavier ships as well as modifications along the existing route of the canal to handle big ships, is supposed to move more cargo through the canal — not less.

And sufficient water is a crucial element in keeping fully laden ships moving through the canal.

“All these operations run on water, and with no water, there can be no Panama Canal,” said Ureña.

The expansion will enable post-Panamax ships, also known as Neo-Panamax vessels, which are too big for the existing locks to transit the canal. These megaships can carry up to 13,000 or 14,000 TEUs [The equivalent of standard 20-foot containers] compared to cargoes of 5,000 or so TEUs transported by ships transiting the current canal.

Currently, about 35 ships daily pass through the locks of the canal and each transit requires 52 million gallons of water. The new locks, however, will be more environmentally friendly because they will allow bigger ships carrying more cargo to transit the canal. They’ll make fewer trips to transport the same amount of cargo and consequently use less water.

The new locks also have water-saving features built into their design. Water-saving basins at each of the new locks’ chambers recycle about 60 percent of the water used for each ship transit rather than flushing it all out to sea as the current locks do. Even though the new locks are bigger, they’ll need about 7 percent less water than old ones.

Panama hopes to position the expansion as “the maritime green route of the world,” said Ureña. The use of larger vessels reduces both carbon emissions and fuel consumption as does shorter shipping routes. “The bigger the ship, the less emissions per unit of cargo,” he said.

In its first 10 years of operation, the expanded canal is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 160 million tons.

Among measures the canal authority has taken to protect the 1,333-square-mile Panama Canal Watershed are adoption of a land use plan, reforestation to conserve soil and water, and education and environmental economic incentive programs.

It also has 46 stations in the watershed to monitor the quality and quantity of water.

But farmers like Vargas form the first line of defense in conserving the vast quantities of water needed to keep the canal operating at optimal levels. Some 1,600 farmers with land ranging from around two to 494 acres take part in the canal authority’s environmental incentive program.

Vargas said in a small way he feels he’ll be part of the celebration when the the expanded Panama Canal officially opens next Sunday.

“I do feel a part of this process,” Vargas said. “I feel I’ve helped recover part of what we ourselves have destroyed.”

Using sustainable farming practices not only reduces erosion and improves water filtration, but in Vargas’ case it has helped increase production, revive a moribund water source on his land, and improve the lifestyle of his entire family.

His story begins when he was a boy.

“I always thought I could be someone better since I was a kid,” said Vargas as he sat on the front patio of his home watching the sun burn off the fog over the nearby hills. “But it was very difficult to continue my studies because the school was so far away.”

So he began to think about what else he could do. What he saw in his mind’s eye was a coffee farm centered on a river stream. Even though he knew little about coffee cultivation, and his father was too sick to help him, as an 11-year-old he began planting coffee seedlings on a small plot of land.

It took 11 years before he had his first harvest, but he persisted, slowly learning how to grow coffee. With that knowledge, it took him six years to get a harvest. One of the problems was there was no water on the land.

But he told the five children he had at the time that one day he would recover the dried-up stream on his land, buy more land and that the coffee would build them their own homes. “They said, ‘Dad, this is just too difficult,’ but I told them one day we will see the results.”

When the canal authority started its program, many farmers used the slash-and-burn process to clear land, but environmentalists taught them to keep and plant trees on their grazing land and to grow robusta coffee under the shade of trees that could produce crops that might move them beyond subsistence farming.

Vargas listened carefully. He planted mango, avocado and other commercial trees on barren land where an old slaughterhouse had stood. The trees helped with water filtration and soil erosion and brought the dry stream on his property back to life about seven years ago.

After he replaces overly tall coffee plants that aren’t producing well, he plants three banana plants nearby that will produce in the interim. He learned how to produce his own seedlings and trim his coffee plants so they will produce more. Instead of burning the trimmings as he once might have done, he uses them for mulch.

“The technicians have told me that business has to do with numbers,” he said. Now he keeps careful track of production, expenses and income.

With the money he got from selling bananas and yucca, he bought and cleared more land and planted more coffee. He and his wife Omayra had four more children and the family’s coffee holdings expanded from five hectares to 19.

“I have been able to support six of my nine children from this farm. My sons have built four houses,” Vargas said. The family owns three all-terrain vehicles and he has a computer in his home.

But most importantly, the farm that Vargas calls Mi Bosque (My Forest) can now produce a coffee harvest in 18 to 24 months. Taking advantage of what he has learned in canal authority training sessions, Vargas expects to increase production even more.

Beyond providing advice, the canal authority has helped local farmers get title to their lands, provided coffee seedlings, tools and organic and chemical fertilizers, and offered payments to those who plant and maintain their land.

“This has been a very long story,” Vargas said before rising to show off his coffee finca across the road and up a muddy lane from his home. “But working with the canal authority has not only benefited my family but also my friends. I tell my sons that beyond the houses and the lands, other things will come.”

“We consider him one of the most successful farmers in the area,” said Arturo Cerezo, who works for the canal authority’s environmental division. “He listened and applied in the field all the recommendations we were making. Then he introduced his brothers and sons to the program — and some of the neighbors, too.”

Vargas’ brother Isidoro used to think the watershed meetings and training sessions were a big waste of time because they took him away from the fields and his real work. Now seeing the increases in production, he’s a believer, too.

The local coffee farmers have organized themselves into an association to get better prices and eventually they’d like to introduce a Panama Canal Watershed-branded coffee.

As José Vargas stood at the edge of the recovered stream that eventually joins the Trinidad River basin and Lake Gatún, he explained the water would soon be piped to some of his neighbors.

But he also likes to contemplate the larger impact of that stream: “The water in the stream we recovered goes to another stream and then another and then winds up in the canal.”

Related stories from Miami Herald