A cargo ship moves toward the Panama Canal in Panama City on Monday. The Panama Canal Authority announced it will start charging large ships for their use of fresh water during their trip thought the canal. Little rain last year lowered the area’s supply of fresh water. (Arnulfo Franco/AP)

The Panama Canal will begin collecting a freshwater surcharge from ships using the waterway, authorities announced Monday, as part of actions to address a scarcity of rainfall after the surrounding area recorded its fifth driest year of the last seven decades in 2019.

Canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez said the new measure aims to protect the supply of fresh water for shipping activity and human consumption.

“It is not an easy decision,” Vásquez said. He added that it will “guarantee the availability of water and the reliability of the [canal] route.”

The canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. More than 12,000 cargo and passenger ships travel through it every year, according to the canal authority.

The new fee will take effect February 15 and has no expiration date. It applies to all vessels more than 125 feet in length and consists of a fixed charge of $10,000 per passage plus a charge that will depend on water levels at Lake Gatun at the time of the crossing.

“The level of the surcharge drops when the level of the lake is at full capacity,” Vásquez said.

The Canal Authority presented its annual report last week highlighting that 2019 was one of the watershed’s lowest rain years in many decades, about 20 percent below the historic average.

The watershed, a system of rivers and brooks that feed lakes, is key to canal operations and also supplies fresh water to Panama City, home to about half the country’s population of 4 million.

Each ship’s passage involves millions of gallons of freshwater, much of which is released into the ocean.

Clients pay an average of $188,000 per transit, though some crossing fees rise as high as $1 million, according to authorities.

Authorities have not yet determined whether limiting the number of ships, something the authority did in 2019 because of low levels at Lake Gatun, will be necessary this year.