B.C. dam projects moving ahead

Biologists install a rotary screw fish trap in the Peace River

BC Hydro is proceeding with its $800 million refit of the Ruskin dam in the Fraser Valley, and beginning formal environmental review of a new design for the Site C dam in B.C.’s northeast.

The estimated price tag for Site C has jumped from $6.6 billion to $7.9 billion, for the third dam on the Peace River and likely the last big hydro dam to be built in the province. BC Hydro updated a 30-year-old design for Site C to increase its output by 20 per cent to supply 450,000 homes a year.

The 80-year-old Ruskin dam is slated for an major reconstruction to improve earthquake safety and increase output by 10 per cent to supply 33,000 homes.

Coleman sent BC Hydro “back to the drawing board” on Ruskin, seeking ways to ease steep rate increases coming to B.C. power customers to pay for its province-wide surge of upgrades and new construction. In an interview Wednesday, Coleman said he isn’t quite finished his review, and plans to tour the Ruskin site, but it has become clear to him that work should proceed at Ruskin as well as the John Hart dam at Campbell River.

“The challenge with both the Ruskin and John Hart dams is that they have signifiant downstream environmental impacts if they’re not there now, because the salmon spawning area is actually below the height of the dams,” Coleman said. “Plus [at Ruskin] there are industrial users down below, a couple of shake mills and also some residential stuff, so you have to look at the whole thing.”

It is technically possible to lower Hayward Lake near Mission over time and decommission the Ruskin dam, but Coleman said after studying the business case, he agrees with BC Hydro that it should be kept as a steady source of power in the densely populated Lower Mainland.

NDP energy critic John Horgan predicted that the $8 billion estimate for Site C will rise again before the projected completion date of 2020. Because the B.C. Liberal government exempted Site C and other big projects from independent review, it’s not clear if B.C. really needs the power to meet domestic supply, he said.

“I think we’ve got a couple of billion dollars more to go before we’re done, and that’s why we need to have, not politicians making these decisions, not self-appointed bureaucrats, but the independent B.C. Utilities Commission,” Horgan said.

Coleman said he’s satisfied that the Ruskin project can pay for itself in 12 years, and the John Hart upgrade will recover its costs in 10 years. Those estimates include rate hikes that could total 50 per cent in the next five years.

Coleman said Site C will help power a wave of industrial growth in northern B.C., from the 100-year supply of natural gas in the Horn River and Montney shales to at least four and as many as six new mines supplied by a new power line into northwest B.C.