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Columbia River Treaty Re-negotiations: Opportunity for a New Age of Water Governance?

Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (left) and US President Dwight Eisenhower sign the Columbia River Treaty in 1961

In 1964, the United States and Canada ratified the Columbia River Treaty, which pledged 60 years of flood control and hydroelectric generation though an intricate series of dams on the river and its tributaries. The first opportunity to terminate the treaty is in 2024 and requires a minimum of 10 years notice, making 2014 an important deadline.

Either country can terminate the treaty, with 10 years written notice, on September 16, 2024 or later. On that date the pre-determined flood control obligations will automatically expire. Options fall into three categories:

  • Terminate the treaty
  • Negotiate new flood control obligations and benefits
  • Extend the existing obligations and benefits

On both sides of the border, citizens and decision-makers are now working to decide the future of the 668,000 square kilometer Columbia Basin and this landmark international trans-boundary water treaty, whose significance reaches far beyond our borders to countries like Jordan and Palestine, as they negotiate over sharing of vanishingly small amounts of water.

Canada’s lead negotiator is the BC government; however, BC has passed most of the responsibility for implementing the treaty to BC Hydro. In the US, the Bonneville Power Administration and The US Army Corps of Engineers jointly administer the treaty. However, there is a third party at the table this time around.

The Ktunaxa First Nation (pronounced Too-Na-Ha), which has proven traditional territory claims on both sides of the border, was not consulted at the time the treaty was established. The Ktunaxa are now engaged in self-government treaty negotiations with the BC and Canadian governments advocating for their right to manage land, water, and natural resources in their traditional territory, including the Columbia River. On June 5th, the Ktunaxa, in partnership with its sister Nations, the Okanagan and the Shuswap, released a public statement (PDF) announcing their intention to open negotiations on the Columbia River Treaty in 2014, specifically highlighting the historical significance of salmon to their culture and way of life and their intention to work to restore salmon and traditional salmon fisheries on the river through the treaty re-negotiations and beyond.

Members of the Ktunaxa First Nation, 1914

As the only First Nations with bargaining rights, these three Nations’ contributions and goals will have a significant influence on the process. Since ratification of the treaty, and the subsequent construction of several enormous dams near the US border, salmon have been unable to return to the BC portion of the river, with great detriment to the traditional First Nations way of life, and extensive impacts on the river’s ecosystems overall.

In a July 25th, 2012 Vancouver Sun article, Vern Ruskin, the former director of BC Electric (the predecessor to BC Hydro) discusses the renewable energy potential on the Columbia River. Hydroelectric generation on both sides of the border currently provides about half of the electricity consumed in the Pacific Northwest and creates about $350 million of annual upstream revenues for the Province. However, Ruskin says that there is much more potential on the river.

“To the mutual benefit of Canada and the US, there is a potential to triple the export power of the Columbia River and increase revenue to $1 billion annually from energy sales to the Americans,” he says.

Wells Dam on the Upper Columbia

Ruskin argues that BC can create more hydroelectric power, generally considered a clean energy source, without having to build more dams. Instead of developing the proposed Site C on the Peace River, he says we should strategically add generators to existing dams on the Columbia, which would raise fewer environmental issues.

Indeed, there are numerous environmental issues associated with the development of dams. The Columbia River is home to one of the world’s largest salmon runs, with six different species traversing its length as they spawn, grow and return to their spawning grounds to repeat the cycle. Salmon populations have dropped drastically over the past century, in part due to development of dams that interrupt migration. All species on the river are important to biodiversity, but salmon have an irreplaceable cultural significance in the basin.

Complex decisions around energy and environmental issues on the Columbia will have to be made before the 2014 deadline. ACT’s Climate Change Adaptation and Biodiversity and Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance reports suggest ways forward on these decisions and aspects that must be considered in the formation of sustainable transboundary management policies. Some specific recommendations that should be considered include:

  • Taking an ecosystems-based management approach by formally allocating water to meet nature’s needs, specifically for salmon habitat;
  • Strengthening and harmonizing flood protection strategies to increase resilience as uncertain weather and extreme events impact the basin;
  • Developing a comprehensive on-going monitoring strategy that includes ground water, to ensure flexible and adequately informed decision-making in a changing climate;
  • Incorporating collaborative governance plans that involve both of the border countries, basin residents, and First Nations.

Lauren Klose
ACT Water Governance Intern
Masters Candidate, SCARP UBC

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