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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Note: see below the article two letters-to-the-editor that were submitted to the Economist shortly after this article appeared.

the.economistCanada and the United States face tough negotiations

Jun 7th 2014

WHEN Dwight Eisenhower, then president of the United States, and John Diefenbaker, his Canadian counterpart, signed a treaty in 1961 to jointly control the unruly Columbia river, they hailed their collaboration as a model for the rest of the world. Fifty years after the treaty was implemented, in 1964, cracks are appearing.

The treaty involved a series of new dams and an agreement to share the power generated as a result. It has worked well. There has been no repeat of the catastrophic flood that wiped out the second-largest city in Oregon in 1948. The United States dutifully hands over Canada’s share of the hydropower generated, worth an average of C$215m ($170m) a year between 1998 and 2013. But the Americans in particular are keen to make changes. Nigel Bankes of the University of Calgary says there is “zero chance” that the disagreements between the two countries can be resolved before September 16th—after which date either country can give ten years’ notice that it wishes to terminate the agreement.

Money is one of two main differences. In return for building three dams—Duncan, Hugh Keenleyside and Mica (see map)—on its side of the border, Canada received an upfront payment from the United States and a guaranteed share of the extra power that could be generated downstream as a result of more dependable water flows. The Americans think Canada has been more than reimbursed for the costs of dam construction, and want to whittle away the annual energy payment known as the Canadian Entitlement. In an open letter to Barack Obama in April, 26 senators and congressmen from the Pacific north-west said a reduction should be part of a renegotiated deal.

Not so fast, say the Canadians. They point out that people were displaced and fertile land flooded to create the dams. That represents a continuing loss. There are also benefits not captured in the treaty, says Bill Bennett, the minister of energy and mines for British Columbia (BC), which implements the treaty for Canada. More dependable water flows lead to improved navigation and irrigation south of the border; BC also co-operates when the United States asks it to spill water over its dams to help meet obligations under endangered-fish-species legislation.

In fact, fish are the other slippery issue. The restoration of salmon migration on the upper reaches of the Columbia river is being pushed by First Nations (native Indian) tribes on both sides of the border. The United States wants salmon on the negotiating table, but the Canadians do not. None of the treaty dams was built with fish ladders and they would be costly to construct today. “Salmon migration in the Columbia river ended 26 years before the treaty was ever ratified,” says Mr Bennett. “It was eliminated by the Grand Coulee dam in 1938, and our position is that’s an important issue but it’s not part of the Columbia River Treaty discussion.”

There is still tremendous cross-border goodwill at the regional level, a product of working co-operatively for 50 years. But relations at the national level are fraying at the edges. The Canadian government has already been riled by the Obama administration’s delays in making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in the United States, and by its foot-dragging on financing a customs plaza for a new international bridge between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit. The model friendship is not what it was.

Click here to view this article online.

The following two letters were submitted to the Economist:


Your story on the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty ("Salmon en route", June 7) is welcome, given its almost certain re-negotiation next year. But two vital linked points were missed.  The most urgent reason to modernize the Treaty was not mentioned:  the spreading effects of global warming on the Columbia River Basin waters both countries share.  A modern Treaty that includes the health of the river as a primary purpose is needed if both nations' people in this vast basin are to have a foundation from which to weather climate change's harms to our shared waters in the next 50 years.  Second, a modernized Treaty will greatly help the people and communities of both nations lead this task.  It is certain that the actions of our governments and their agencies will not keep the Columbia watershed in reasonable health through global warming.  The watershed's people and communities will have to do the lion's share.  The best thing our governments can do is to give those of us who live in the basin a modern Columbia River Treaty as a joint tool for use by people.

Thank you.

Pat Ford
Boise, Idaho



Your story on the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty ("Salmon en route", June 7) aptly touches on the complex, shifting relationships between the federal governments in Ottawa and Washington, DC which could delay, or even impede the treaty’s much needed re-negotiation/modernization. Any such delay would, however, harm the economic interests of the greater Pacific Northwest which are at risk due to climate change, as well as perpetuate the moral debt owed to the regions’ First Nations and Columbia River Tribes.

The 1964 Treaty, while acclaimed as a successful international water agreement, utterly ignored the interests of the region’s native peoples. The four dams built with U.S. dollars flooded aboriginal lands in eastern British Columbia, further decimating the economic and cultural livelihood of native peoples there who had been cut off the great salmon migrations when the US opened Grand Coulee dam in 1942. Shortly thereafter, British Columbia moved to “disestablish” the native peoples of the Upper Columbia basin who had suffered the greatest losses. Of course, three decades of dam building on the US side of the border, largely without fish passage, had already wrought similar devastation, both economically and culturally, to Columbia Basin tribes south of the 49th parallel. The deliberate indifference of both the US and Canadian governments to the incalculable harm to the Pacific Northwest’s native peoples from the mighty dams that have enriched the region is a profound, and ongoing violation of civil and human rights. There is a debt owed on both sides of the border that should be, and probably can only be, addressed through a modernized Columbia River Treaty. 

There is a baser reason for modernizing the treaty: the threat climate change poses to the economy of the greater Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River dams on both sides of the border have fueled tremendous growth, not just through hydropower, but through control of water—for flood avoidance and irrigation. Dams made the region an agricultural powerhouse turning sagelands into orchards and potato fields. Irrigation depends upon the regions’ glaciers and snowpack, which are already melting quickly due to increasing temperatures, and, climate scientists predict, will have largely disappeared on the US side of the border in the next forty years. The Columbia’s flows will change as the impacts of climate change grow, threatening the tremendous prosperity the region has enjoyed as an energy and food exporter.

Renewing and modernizing the Columbia River Treaty could provide the essential framework to address past wrongs, and to cooperate across the border to preserve prosperity region-wide in the face of climate change. It could also create cross-border impetus to restore the beleaguered Columbia River which is severely degraded, and to restore fish to cooler waters in the upper basin which will be essential to the region’s fishery with temperatures rising. The people of the region need the Canadian and US governments to look past short-term interests and to modernize the Columbia River Treaty to provide a framework for adapting to climate change and increasing water scarcity, for the benefit of both countries. 

Thank you.

Suzanne Skinner
Mercer Island Washington, USA


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