Columbia River Treaty: Coming to the Table

In recent weeks, the renegotiation of the 54-year-old Columbia River Treaty between Canada and the US began in earnest. Although it is early in the renegotiation process, it is crucial for Canada to establish now which issues are on the table—and who is at the table.

When the original treaty was signed, there were only two questions in the minds of politicians and engineers: how to tame the mighty Columbia River to prevent a repeat of the devastation of the floods in 1948 and how to generate as much electricity as possible on the river’s 2000km journey to the sea. Environmental concerns and the rights of First Nations were ignored, along with the voices of people who lived in the region.

Now, it’s time to right those historical mistakes by widening the scope of the treaty to include the ecological function of the river and the return of salmon to the upper Columbia River. It’s time for the US and Canada to co-manage Libby Dam in Montana, which creates the transboundary Koocanusa Reservoir. And it’s time for First Nations to be at the table for the renegotiation process.

No one denies the economic and safety benefits of the treaty dams, but ongoing environmental damage from the treaty dams must be tackled in the treaty renegotiation. The three Canadian treaty reservoirs, Arrow Lakes, Duncan and Kinbasket, cover hundreds of square kilometres of ecologically important valley-bottom land. What’s worse is that major fluctuations in the reservoir levels, sometimes more than 30 metres, turn the constantly shifting shoreline into a massive dead zone. It is hard to overstate the ecological importance of the productive shoreline zone for wildlife both large and small, not to mention fish and other aquatic life. The loss of shoreline habitat has impacts on wildlife and ecosystems across our mountain landscape and throughout our watersheds.

But all is not lost. Even small changes in flows through our dams, when combined with ecological restoration work along the reservoir and river edges, can have big impacts. The renegotiated treaty must enshrine ecological function as an equal priority with flood control and power generation in the co-management of the treaty dams. All future management decisions must be informed by ecological needs.

Before Grand Coulee dam in Washington State was completed in 1942, salmon swam upstream 2000km from the sea to the Columbia Headwaters at Canal Flats. With Canadian commitments already in place to provide for salmon passage all the way up to Revelstoke, Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in the US are the only barriers to salmon migration for most of the Columbia and its tributaries. While these two dams pre-date the original treaty, there is no reason Canada cannot make them part of the negotiations now.

The US enjoys major benefits, worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year, from the Canadian treaty dams, not just in increased power generation and flood control, but also by providing more dry-season water for agriculture, shipping, recreation and fish. Canada must take a hard line: we won’t adjust Canadian flows for US benefits unless the Americans let salmon past their dams and back into Canada. First Nations, experts and government are ready to do the hard work to re-establish salmon spawning in Canada. We need to make sure the US does their work to build fish passage into their dams—and what better way to do that than in the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation, where we have something the Americans want?

For First Nations, salmon have cultural value which has been ignored for far too long. Negotiating for US salmon passage would be an important act of reconciliation for a Canadian government that has established reconciliation as a priority.

Recently, Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland announced that Canada’s First Nations wouldn’t be at the negotiating table. The three Canadian First Nations in the Columbia Basin, the Ktunaxa, Secwepmec and Okanagan Nation Alliance, are exactly that: nations. We must recognize their sovereignty and that means, at a minimum, that they must be at the table for the renegotiation process. Any less is a failure to acknowledge the damage to First Nation’s traditional territories that the Columbia River treaty dams has caused.

Finally, we must address the imbalance in dam management between the three Canadian Treaty dams and Libby Dam on the Kootenay River in Montana, the sole American treaty dam. While Canada and the US currently co-manage the three Canadian dams, the US Army Corps of Engineers has exclusive management of Libby. A quick look at a map shows the problem: while all the Canadian reservoirs are solely on Canadian soil, Koocanusa Reservoir starts behind Libby Dam, but stretches 68km into Canada. We’re downstream of Libby Dam too, because the Kootenay River returns to Canada at Creston. Canada needs to hold fast for at least equal co-management of all treaty dams, on both sides of the border. Anything less is a continued loss of sovereignty for Canada.

We can’t undo the permanent flooding and environmental and cultural impacts of the Columbia River Treaty dams, but Canada now has the opportunity to ensure that the renegotiated treaty puts our environment on equal footing with electrical generation and flood control and helps us bring back salmon and respects First Nations’ sovereignty. The next negotiation session will be in the Canadian Columbia Basin on August 15th and 16th, so now is the time for Canada to take a strong stand for salmon and our environment.