If water finds its own level, can you explain the need for the Panama canal?

Dear Matthew Alice:

Who do I turn to when no one else has the answer? You, of course. Water finds its own level, right? RIGHT! Then explain the need for the Panama Canal. Except for tides and waves, all oceans should be level. Some educated people looked at me with raised eyebrows when I asked this question.

-- Eileen Serritella, San Diego

And you've turned to us just in the nick of time, Eileen. Not a moment to spare. One of the reasons the Panama Canal almost didn't get built was because practically everybody on the planning committee wanted to do what you imply -- dig a lower-than-sea-level ditch across the isthmus and then stand back and let water find its own level. With that plan, they'd still be moving rock today. Given the topography of Panama, which does include mountains, the only practical solution was the step-wise, locks-lakes-and-dams system to carry ships up and down the 85-foot rise. Busting down through the Continental Divide or routing ships through hairpin turns around hills just wasn't practical, though it looked cute on paper.

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