Vernon Ruskin, now 88, was head of planning for BC Electric when the Columbia River Treaty was put together 50 years ago.
Looking back, he says decisions were made then that could be hugely beneficial now – if British Columbia and the United States can agree to expand, rather than to restrict, the international agreement that is up for renewal next year.
“I suggest negotiating a bigger and better treaty in 2014, with wider scope, including the option of offering blocks of surplus BC Hydro power at fixed long-term prices,” he says. “If B.C. delays [in striking this kind of deal] … you are literally throwing billions of dollars down the river.”
His views echo from a time when politicians thought on a grand scale, and if his voice is heard it could jolt talks between B.C. and a coalition of western states, known as the U.S. Entity.
The two sides are basically looking at just three options for the future of what has been called the most important water agreement in North America.
Number one is to continue the treaty, under which B.C. controls floods and releases water to generate power in the U.S. in return for payments ranging from $150-million to $300-million annually.
Number two is to cancel the treaty and let each side manage its section of the watershed without concern for the other.
Number three, the most likely scenario, is to renegotiate – and that will lead to some tough talks because the U.S. wants to pay a lot less for power and nothing for flood control. Some analysts see B.C.’s payments getting cut in half.
But Dr. Ruskin, whose work allowed the Columbia River to be turned into a massive power-generating and flood-control system in the first place, says there is another more exciting possibility that could bring B.C. billions – and provide enormous benefits to the U.S.
He calls it Option Number Four.
“I am probably the only B.C. engineer still alive who was involved in the original 1955-63 Columbia Treaty,” he says. “I was director of planning for BC Electric, the predecessor to BC Hydro. I planned every one of the ‘heritage’ plants that BC Hydro now uses … so I know how this works.”
Leading up to the signing of the treaty, Dr. Ruskin’s team designed 12 dams to be built on the Columbia River in southeast B.C.
But only four of those dams were ever built. And of those four, only two were fully equipped with turbines.
“There was a power surplus then and the focus was on flood control,” he says. “The Duncan Dam has been sitting there 40 years without generators. Would you believe this? This is a huge, huge dam, not a small dam. It’s huge and the water just spills.”
The Hugh Keenleyside Dam, which has a 200-kilometre-long reservoir sitting behind it, was built to only half its generating capacity.
Dr. Ruskin said if the four dams were brought up to full potential and two new run-of-river dams were added, B.C. could generate 3,000 megawatts “of clean surplus hydro energy … worth around $120-billion at a fixed, non-inflating price for 30 years.”
The benefit to the U.S. would be a guaranteed supply of low-cost electricity, which would mean gas-fired power plants planned to feed California could be scrapped, “cutting unhealthy pollution by 16 million tonnes of carbon a year.”
Dr. Ruskin also says the B.C. dams already in place were built with the capacity to store more water than they do. If reservoirs were topped up, the surplus water could be used on both sides of the border to help restore salmon runs.
“Every time you take water for fish, it doesn’t go through the turbines and it costs you money,” he said, “so the power people are always fighting with the fish people.” Under his plan, the fish would benefit without stealing from power production.
“So in other words, what would happen is we can do something in Canada that would let the power people get all the power they want, and the fish people all the fish they want.”
Dr. Ruskin notes that the original engineering plans for the 12 Columbia River dams are in the archives at BC Hydro, just waiting for someone to pull them out and take another step toward fulfilling the original vision of former B.C. premier W.A.C. Bennett.
“It’s an idea whose time has come – and it makes common sense,” says Dr. Ruskin, who hopes the West has not run out of politicians who dream big.