FORECASTERS PREDICT RAINS OF REPLENISHMENT IN PANAMA

FORECASTERS PREDICT RAINS OF REPLENISHMENT IN PANAMA

El Nino is moving out of Panama, and hopefully, the rains are moving in.

The effect of El Nino on the Panama Canal, which to date has led to draft restrictions on ships and altered trade flows, is unlikely to last much beyond this fall, according to weather forecasters.''You cannot absolutely predict rainfalls in Panama, but we are fairly certain, looking at the way things are happening out there, that the El Nino will be gone in three to five months,'' said Jim Candor, assistant vice president and senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc., a private forecaster in State College, Pa.

The unusual accumulation of warm water near the equator in the Pacific, whose effects have been felt throughout the world, is slowly dissipating.

That means that the worst drought in Panama in some 50 years will likely be wiped away by the torrential downpours, which are normally expected beginning in April and last throughout the year.

Those rains are counted on to replenish the lakes and reservoirs that provide the fresh water used in the canal's lock system. Rainfall averages between 60 and 140 inches a year on the Caribbean coast and between 45 and 90 inches on the Pacific side.

Experts say that the coming rainy season is not likely to competely refill the waterway until late this year. But Canal officials suggest that draft restrictions could come off sooner.

''We are looking at no draft restrictions by September or October,'' said Mercedes Morris Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Panama Canal Commission.

Asked how much rainfall the canal would need to abandon hull restrictions, Ms. Morris Mercedes said, ''That is the million-dollar question. There are so many variables that go into recuperation. We don't have a figure. But we need a return to normal rainfalls.''

Others agreed that while a return to normal rainfall is expected, the timing and amount is critical.

'BACK TO NORMAL GRADUALLY'

''It's not like turning a switch on and off. There is a lag. This El Nino is on the way out. By next year, all of the El Nino's impact should be gone. In the meantime, things get back to normal gradually,'' said Michael Halpert, an El Nino expert and forecaster with the Climate-Prediction Center, a part of the U.S. National Weather Service that looks at long-range expectations.

''El Nino is going to be around for a little bit longer,'' said Austin L. Dooley, president of Dooley SeaWeather Analysis Inc., a private weather service serving the maritime industry.

A ship passing through the Panama Canal washes about 52 million gallons of fresh water out of the upper channels. With an average of 40 ships passing through a day, the daily usage is 2 billion gallons, well above what the El Nino is allowing in renewed rainfall.

FIRST RESTRICTIONS IN 15 YEARS

Because of the drought, the Panama Canal Commission last month for the first time in 15 years began restricting the draft of ships in six-inch intervals.

The restrictions, which began March 12, are ultimately expected to slash allowable vessel drafts by as much as five feet. Container shipping lines are already diverting cargo that normally moves through the canal through the Suez Canal to ports on the East coast, or through the U.S. West Coast, usually at a higher cost to shippers.

DOWN AGAIN IN APRIL

On March 12, the Canal Commission imposed a maximum allowable draft of 39 feet, down from 39 feet and 6 inches. By April 6, the commission scheduled restrictions that would shrink the draft to 36 feet, 6 inches.

For every foot of restriction, about 100 fewer 20-foot containers can be carried on a ship. Bulk carriers moving U.S. grains, the largest user of the canal, are also being affected.

The U.S.-run Panama Canal Commission, in business since 1914, will be turned over to the government of Panama at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, 2000.