In a time of drought, a modernized Columbia River Treaty offers hope

It’s official: B.C’s annual April snow survey confirms this winter is leaving our province with its lowest snowpack on record at just 63% of normal. Last year’s snowpack was significantly higher at 88%,1 but even that restricted water availability for residences and farmers, stressed ecosystems, and contributed to the most expensive and destructive wildfire season ever.

In the Arrow Lakes valley last year, residents faced unique challenges related to the combination of climate-induced drought and water management decisions made decades ago through the Canada-U.S. Columbia River Treaty. Sadly, it looks like this year could be just as bad if not worse.

This graph shared by BC Hydro on April 26th shows a preliminary forecast for Arrow Lakes Reservoir levels until the projected high point in mid-June “based on several factors, including snowpack to date, expected spring and summer rainfall, expected upstream generation at Mica and Revelstoke, and Columbia River Treaty requirements.” The red line shows projected water levels are somewhat lower than last year’s levels, which are indicated by the dotted line.

As we increasingly face conditions like this in a destablized climate, it is important to make proactive, balanced, and sustainable choices about water management. And doing that requires education!

At Wildsight, we’re working hard to equip people with the knowledge they need to participate in this crucial dialogue. In our region, it’s an especially rich time for this as the Columbia River Treaty approaches its 60th anniversary with opportunities to chart a new course for decades to come.

The legacy of the Columbia River Treaty: International agreement, local impacts

The 1964 Columbia River Treaty is an agreement between Canada and the United States that coordinates management of the Columbia River’s flow using three dams built in the Canadian portion of the watershed.

A B.C. Government map showing the location of the Columbia River Treaty dams: Mica Dam north of Revelstoke, Duncan Dam north of Kaslo, and the Hugh Keenleyside Dam north of Castlegar. The treaty also authorized the U.S. to build Libby Dam in Montana on the Kootenay River with its reservoir (Koocanusa) stretching over the border into B.C. Together, these four dams flooded an area roughly 3 times the size of Kootenay Lake (approx. 120,000 hectares).

The construction of the Hugh Keenleyside Dam displaced 23 largely agricultural communities and more than 2,000 residents between Castlegar and Revelstoke to make way for the Arrow Lakes Reservoir. All the dams and reservoirs inflicted severe ecological damage, drowned many Indigenous cultural sites, and disrupted local attachments to the landscape. While construction provided a temporary economic boost, the reservoirs have damaged the local forestry, agriculture, and tourism industries.

Map from a 1965 BC Hydro publication titled “The New Outlook for the Arrow Lakes” showing some of the communities that were ultimately flooded out by the reservoir. At the time, BC Hydro and the Provincial government portrayed the agricultural lifestyle of the area as outdated, did not consult local residents on the treaty, and in many cases did not provide adequate or fair compensation to displaced residents. Indigenous people and their cultural values in the area were also ignored.

Under the treaty today, Canada essentially provides water management services to the United States by controlling the flow of water across the international border such that the U.S. (1) can develop in historic floodplains without worrying about seasonal flooding and (2) is able to maximize power production at its own dams.

Although some of the economic benefits from this arrangement do flow back to Canada, there are also sacrifices. Notably, reservoirs in Canada are typically “drawn down” over the fall, winter, and spring so that there is space to catch spring snowmelt, hold it back, and then release it when it benefits the U.S.2. This allows the U.S. to keep its reservoirs along the main stem of the Columbia (such as Lake Roosevelt Reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam) close to full all year long.

Dams produce more power when their reservoirs are full. Full reservoirs also have flexibility to release water when it’s needed for various purposes including to support migrating salmon or maximize power generation at dams further downstream. Fuller reservoirs also generally provide more recreational opportunities than emptier ones. Different aspects of the ecosystem do better with different reservoir levels, but changing the water level from very low to very high year after year is generally bad for ecological health.

The Arrow Lakes Reservoir south of Nakusp as seen on September 8th, 2023 with water levels almost below the very bottom of the Burton boat launch (note the truck for scale).

Although last year was among the worst in terms of low water in Canadian reservoirs, the Canadian Columbia Basin has faced these kinds of impacts since the dams were built in the ’60s and ’70s. Given this year’s dismal snowpack, 2024 appears poised to be another low point in this weary history.

Fortunately, there are opportunities for change. Negotiators from both countries have been meeting actively since 2018 in pursuit of an updated agreement. In stark contrast to the original treaty, the Canadian negotiating team this time includes Indigenous Nations alongside the provincial and federal governments.

While not on the negotiating team, local governments are also closely engaged through the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee, which has published a detailed set of recommendations for a modernized treaty. The Province of BC also supports and consults the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee, made up of residents from communities across the region.

Regardless of what happens with negotiations, change is coming. On September 16th this year — the 60th anniversary of the treaty — Canada’s obligation to provide guaranteed pre-planned flood control services will end, shifting more responsibility for flood risk in the U.S. to the U.S. This could start to open up opportunities for Canada to manage its reservoirs in new ways, although changes will likely be incremental through a process of learning-while-doing known as adaptive management. 

Educating our region for the future

Since 2018, Wildsight has taken annual cohorts of local teenagers on two-week canoe journeys down the Columbia River, traveling from the headwaters in Canal Flats to its confluence with the Kootenay River in Castlegar. To date, more than 60 youth from over 20 different Columbia Basin communities have participated in the Columbia River Field School program. Along the way, students engage with more than 20 experts to enrich their place-based learning experiences and earn 4 units of high school credit through our partnership with School District 8.

We’ve also taken groups of educators on 3-4 day canoe journeys through our Teach the Columbia program as a complement to the written and multimedia curriculum resources we’ve made available for free online.

Last year, in a pilot program called Columbia River Conversations, we brought a group of youth alumni from the Columbia River Field School together with adults from the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee and Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee for a long weekend of intergenerational learning on the shore of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir in Burton

Columbia River Conversations participants paddle into an inlet of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir with lines left on the shoreline by the progressive dropping of water levels providing a visible ‘calendar’ of dam operations etched into the landscape.

Although not everyone may have the chance to participate in such in-depth journeys, everyone living in this region can participate in the conversation about our water future!

The Province of B.C. has committed to engaging with Columbia Basin residents before making final decisions on a modernized Columbia River Treaty. Although we don’t know when negotiators might reach the initial agreement that would trigger such a consultation (commonly referred to as an ‘Agreement In Principle’), we can prepare as a region by continuing to learn.3

Another way we can all help is to support efforts to collect data that will be needed to guide decision making into the future.

Through their Columbia Basin Water Monitoring Framework project and associated Columbia Basin Water Hub, Living Lakes Canada is building a growing body of publicly available water data that governments, community groups, and the private sector can use to make informed decisions about water management.

Wildsight and Living Lakes Canada are also working to create a new water education program focusing on the preciousness of water resources and the need to collaboratively manage them. Students will interpret data to solve a ‘water quality mystery’ and play various roles as community water users to decide how to share water equitably. A field experience at a local creek will then provide opportunities for students to collect water quality and quantity data for themselves.

Stay tuned for more updates about the Columbia River Treaty and our work to educate people for our watershed’s future!

  1. As of April, 2024 levels are slightly better in the Columbia Basin than the 63% provincial average, but still bad: 66% for the Upper Columbia, 76% for the East Kootenay and 72% for the West Kootenay sub-regions. Last year’s levels were 77% for Upper Columbia, 95% for East Kootenay and 93% for West Kootenay with a provincial average of 88%.
  2. It’s important to note that dam operations in Canada are also influenced by domestic factors in addition to the Columbia River Treaty.
  3. Among other resources, interested readers can learn more at the Province of B.C.’s Columbia River Treaty website.