Herculean Public Works Never Undertaken

The Soviet OGAS, Continental Hydrology, and NAWAPA

by Diego Ramiro Lattes & Serban V.C. Enache


The Soviet OGAS, or ASAS in English (All-State Automated System), was never fulfilled. The project began to see its earliest iteration in 1963, when Glushkov began to study state farms, mines, and industrial plants alongside every administrative facet of the Soviet system – from the lowest to the highest authority – to determine how the emerging computing technologies could be best used for the benefit of the nation. This first materialized in the draft for a “Unified nation-wide network of computing centers” (Russian: EGSVC) early in 1964. With 100 computing centers in the biggest industrial cities and economic centers – connected by broadband communication channels which would be spread across the entire country and service around 20.000 large industrial plants, government departments, as well as small enterprises – the project was nothing short of ambitious. Plans for data security were also included.

However, bureaucracy got in the way. The budget of 5 billion rubles for 10 years and the need to prepare over 300.000 highly skilled specialists for the project forced the Committee into spending cuts, which led to the EGSVC being gutted in the form of smaller, less useful and ambitious projects. The functions were limited to industrial process automation and statistical information collection, in addition to document control in some organizations, which also eventually came to fall under the control of a bureaucratic apparatus not associated with (and in fact opposed to) Glushkov’s vision.

Throughout the same year however, Glushkov began to work out contacts and tried to persuade the Soviet bureaucrats and politicians of the usefulness (and imperative need) of the project. According to him, OGAS was to be more complex than the space and nuclear programs combined, because it would affect every administrative branch: industry, trade, planning, control, and more. Moreover, according to his calculations, the system would end up paying for itself within 5 years of operation. Not a bad deal by any stretch of the imagination, all things considered.

While the project’s failure was entirely political and not technical, we can only wonder what the Soviets might have accomplished had they succeeded in incorporating it. One criticism right-wingers make of the planned economy is its supposed unfeasibility to react to economic changes. But the OGAS project would have been one of the greatest achievements of human technical ingenuity – not only being able to react to economic changes, but also to carry out changes as required. It would also have resonated extremely well with the socialist vision of the time – that of harnessing nature for the purposes of civilization, instead of merely exploiting it for gain.

It would have enabled the USSR to surpass the USA in economic output. While the USA sank in rent-seeking and infrastructural obsolescence – as it is today – the USSR would have had a near-perfect system of economic automation that would have enabled it to channel the forces of its citizens, resources, and skill-sets for whatever it wished. It is no small thing to say that it would have resulted in the complete economic awakening of the foregone Eurasian giant, dwarfing that of China in recent times.

Technocrats’ Continental Hydrology

The Soviets were not the only ones with great visions of the future, however. Some Americans – scientists and engineers, in particular – always had the idea that transportation could be made more efficient, and water control in particular to be in dire need of an overhaul. Some states sometimes have shortages while others have surpluses – all thanks to natural allocation of resources, but no man-made effort to distribute this wealth.

The Technocrats proposed to – along with other projects which I will not cover here – to create a unified “Continental Hydrology”. The purpose of this project would have been to unite many Canadian and American water pathways into a single, unified, network of waterways which would have enabled a significant amount of transportation via water. The rationale was that not only this would have enabled better water distribution but also significantly increased biodiversity in many lacking areas, improved the overall climate, and reduced greatly emissions due to transportation as water transport is one of the most energy-efficient means of transport.

It was estimated by the Technocrats that North America had a combined potential of 313 Gigawatts without including gains from the Continental Hydrology (which, when completed, could also be used for further renewable and clean energy generation). To put it in perspective, the CIA World Factbook estimates the energy consumption in the US in the year 2015 at over 3.9 trillion Kw/h. [Note: the figure represents total electricity generated annually plus imports and minus exports, expressed in kilowatt-hours. The discrepancy between the amount of electricity generated and or imported and the amount consumed and or exported is accounted for as loss in transmission and distribution.]

The Continental Hydrology, at least in this initial stage, would be able to generate more than 2.7 trillion Kw/h yearly… This would effectively enable the United States to meet many (although not all) of its energy needs through hydro power alone, the rest sufficing with other clean methods to ensure a sustainable future.


Originally, the North American Water and Power Alliance was a scheme developed during the 1950s by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Its aim was to capture and distribute fresh water to Canada, to the lower 48 states of the US, and to Mexico. The Ralph M. Parsons Company presented in ’64 a detailed plan to a special subcommittee of the US Senate. As entered in the Congressional record, the original plan entailed 369 separate projects.

NAWAPA starts out with the construction of a series of dams in Alaska and in the Canadian Yukon. The drainage area was estimated at 1.3 million square miles, with an average precipitation of 40 inches per year. A large portion of the captured water would be channeled into a special reservoir, built out of the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Trench in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The reservoir was to be 500 miles long, 10 miles wide, and 300 feet deep. Due to the fact the trench itself is situated at an elevation of 3.000 feet, the network of projects would ensure ample opportunities for hydroelectric power generation.

To the east, a thirty-foot deep canal would be cut from the Trench to Lake Superior, to maintain a constant water level, while cleaning out pollution in the entire Great Lakes system from Duluth to Buffalo. This would further provide water for hydroelectric plants and agricultural irrigation for the Great Plains region. The canal itself could ultimately be made navigable for lake and ocean-faring vessels, starting from the Great Lakes, going into the heart of Alberta and potentially into British Columbia.

NAWAPA aqueducts and reservoirs would cover the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, bringing water to the Staked Plains and to the lower Rio Grande River basin – while serving multiple states, including Mexico, via existing rivers. A diversion aqueduct at Trout Creek, Utah would send low-mineral water to southern California and Baja California. There it would stem soil damage caused by the high-mineral Colorado River water used for irrigation.

It was estimated that NAWAPA could assure adequate water supply to the continent for the next 100 years. Water, thus conserved, would be sufficient to irrigate 86.300 square miles. By delivering 20 million acre-feet of water to Mexico, the country would develop eight times as much new irrigated land as the Aswan High Dam provides Egypt. NAWAPA would offer 22 million acre-feet of usable fresh water to Canada and 78 million for the US. Though Congress didn’t take the proposal on board, it was never rejected based on feasibility counter-arguments.

Stabilization and control of the Great Lakes is one example of the decrease in pollution levels attainable by such methods of water management. NAWAPA would also help to stabilize water levels throughout the West, providing the chance to reverse the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer – the High Plains area’s main water source. It would provide the mechanism for reversing the current salinity problem of irrigated lands by flooding selected areas to wash out the accumulated salts, while preventing future build-ups. Ground water stores would be replenished, while better facilities for water transport would lower costs.

Unlike ‘make-work’ programs or so-called bullshit jobs, the NAWAPA proposal would create substantial employment in the construction sector and steel industry. The completion of the project would add tremendous productive power for those states involved, a closer economic relationship between them – and, in the project’s wake, a skilled and disciplined labor force. It would create plenty of well-paying jobs and skill development right at the workplace. Plus, the opportunity to successfully integrate ex-cons back into society (after ending the twin policies of mass incarceration and prisons for profit), whilst avoiding controversial employment areas (like child-minding services) for those convicted of violent crimes.

Canada would enjoy 58 million acre-feet of water and 38 additional Gigawatts of hydroelectric power, and the same kind of irrigation, transport, and clean water the US would enjoy. For Mexico, a nation in need of agricultural and industrial investment to advance the living standards of its population – NAWAPA would produce an additional 40 million acre-feet of water a year, at least tripling its irrigable land, and 4 additional Gigawatts of electric power. For the US, 150 million acre-feet of water per year, around 55 Gigawatts surplus capacity per year, and some 50 million acres in new irrigable land.

Labor and capital spent on water conservation and labor-intensive farming methods to save a few gallons per acre have proved inefficient, leading to higher build-ups of salts in the soil – which will eventually poison the crops and the groundwater if they are not flushed out. Overall, dryland farming is much less productive than irrigation, but it is also much less predictable (less assurance of a base level of productivity).

The Great Plains are a major food source. Leaving the region to nature’s whim, when that whim could be managed, is unsound. Preliminary studies showed the development of irrigation in the Dust Bowl region would add substantially to the average natural rainfall over that area.

NAWAPA’s financing, construction, and operation would require a continent-wide agency, representing all three North American countries. During the ’60s, the plan was championed by people in high places. Congressman Jim Wright wrote of it in his book, The Coming Water Famine, calling it a project of limitless potential for those with courage and foresight. Senator Frank Moss of Utah branded the project as the best way to deal with supply problems and pollution. He later became a lobbyist for the Parsons Corporation. Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson emphasized it as (potentially) one of the most crucial developments in history.

The whole program’s projected costs tallied at around 100 billion dollars at 1966 dollar value; the largest public undertaking ever… Sadly, the rise of the environmental movement in the following decade saw the NAWAPA proposal as an arrogance of man, hydrological destruction without precedent – and the proposal was scrapped. Short-sightedness… in ample supply throughout the ages.

Eco-friendlier technology today still hasn’t left the NAWAPA proposal obsolete or as a mere chase for vain glory. Advocates of the Job Guarantee across North America should revive the plan and make it their own. Europe and Asia are taking steps toward reviving the old Silk Road. For North America, fresh water and electricity can be the ‘new silk,’ at least until we enter a new age of peace and progress – and a world land bridge will be realized.

Diego Ramiro Lattes is from South America, Argentina, and has a low tolerance for nonsense, be it left wing or right wing. He can be reached over Twitter and is open to direct messages. https://twitter.com/JStockDesign

Serban V.C. Enache is a Romanian journalist and indie author. Though interested in history, politics, and economics, his true passion is for medieval fantasy fiction. https://www.amazon.com/Serban-Valentin-Constantin-Enache/e/B00N2SJD6O/ He can be reached over Twitter. https://twitter.com/SerbanVCEnache

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