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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

crosscut.damAugust 14, 2015

Were they not choking on the smoke from the region’s wildfires, our neighbors in British Columbia might be enjoying a measure of satisfaction from the challenges extreme drought have presented to those of us who live south of the 49th parallel.

As Becky Kramer reported in the Aug. 9 Spokesman-Review, many living in the province’s interior have not forgotten what was taken from them when President Dwight Eisenhower and Canada Premier John Diefenbaker signed the Columbia River Treaty in 1961. The ensuing construction of three dams on the Canada side of the border, and the waters backed up into British Columbia from the Libby Dam in northwest Montana, inundated many homes and farms, displacing about 2,300 residents in the process.

The dams added tremendously to potential hydroelectricity production in the U.S., and substantially reduced the risk of catastrophic flooding. The U.S. helped pay for the dams, and has returned about 40 percent of the increased electricity production to British Columbia at discount prices.

The families whose property was sacrificed got little. Their resentment would be familiar to any of the thousands of Native Americans, farmers and others who lived on the shores of the Columbia south of the border until they too were flooded out by Grand Coulee and other dams.

But the Canadians live with the blight of mudflats and stranded docks created by water level fluctuations up to 70 vertical feet; about the height of The Spokesman-Review tower. Not only do yo-yo shorelines reduce the reservoirs’ use as recreation assets, dried mud becomes dust irritating to sinus and memory.

Conditions this year, as U.S. and Canadian representatives begin to renegotiate the treaty, which expires in 2024, probably make as strong a case as the Canadians might hope for a deal that keeps electricity flowing north as water comes south.

Salmon are dying by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. What water there is in the Columbia and many tributaries is intolerably warm. Because snow blanketed British Columbia’s mountains while the Northwest’s were merely dusted, the Canadians have been releasing colder water to provide what help they can.

The expiring fish cost Northwest utility ratepayers billions of dollars: to restore habitat, build hatcheries and move fish around the dams. The mortality rates will not be known for some time as new runs head upriver, but rebuilding damaged sockeye stocks, just for one, will likely take years and many millions more.

Meanwhile, irrigators are building a new canal that will take from the Columbia water that was set aside for them years ago. With it, they will no longer have to pump from sinking aquifers.

The principles that will guide U.S. negotiators added ecological considerations to what is now a document focused mainly on power and flood control. If ever there was a year that could underscore just how important the Canadian dams might be to sustaining our fish and electricity production, this it.

Our friends to the north will have an ace in their hand when they come to the negotiating table.

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