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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty


June 20, 2018columbia river treaty1

International water treaties do not often make headlines in the media. But the start of formal negotiations on modernizing the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada has stimulated a flurry of responses from observers on both sides of the border. Most of these comments have focused on the potential conflict and disagreement between the parties. However, a modernized treaty could offer significant benefits, especially when considering opportunities for restoring ecosystem health to both the Canadian and the U.S. portions of the Columbia as an important priority for the negotiations.

The two main articulated concerns are that the U.S. is paying too much for the Canadian Entitlement — the 50-per-cent share of hydro-power production due to augmented flows from Canadian reservoirs — and the ending of the current flood control agreements in 2024. Both of these issues offer substantial opportunities for Canada to share benefits with the U.S. if restoring ecosystem services plays a central role going forward.

Currently the Treaty dictates that once releases from Canadian storages cross the international border they are charged to the U.S. on the basis that the flows are used to generate power. In fact, some of these regulated flows are now used to augment flows in the Lower Columbia, to facilitate juvenile and adult salmon migration, support irrigated agriculture, and maintain water-based recreation. If the regulated flows from upstream Canadian reservoirs provided just five per cent more water for these uses, the incremental annual value of these flows would be at least as great as the present Canadian Entitlement. Current predictions for a changing climate and hydrology throughout the Columbia in the coming decades will result in less water availability in the U.S. portion of the watershed, particularly in the dry summer months. The value of stored Canadian water for meeting U.S. interests will therefore only increase, and Canada should still be entitled to payment for incremental power production as in the past.

Benefits to ecosystem health in Canada could also result from re-negotiating the flood control component of the Treaty following its expiry in 2024. The annual water level fluctuation in the Arrow Lakes can be reduced once Canada is no longer obligated to ensure there is storage capacity for downstream flood control. This would decrease the exposure of vast areas of reservoir which causes dust storms and difficult access for boaters and recreationists. In addition, large areas of riparian habitat would be restored for wildlife, long-lost agricultural and forest production could be reclaimed, and recreational fisheries could be potentially enhanced.

Minister Katrine Conroy, the lead on the treaty for the B.C. government, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing benefits from a restored Columbia River to reconcile legitimate rights of Indigenous peoples, to benefit community interests, and to ensure the best science is brought to bear in the negotiations. Ensuring the successful return of a sustainable fishery in the Columbia Basin and the reintroduction of salmon to upstream areas where dams presently block access is a critical element in the aspirations of Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border.

At a recent symposium held at the University of Victoria, scientists and policy makers from all levels of government, academia, B.C. Hydro, and Indigenous groups confirmed that more innovative and flexible approaches will be required to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. The existing Treaty is too narrowly focused, as it only addresses power production and flood control. Improving the balance of benefits from flood control, energy systems management, and ecosystems maintenance or restoration will require innovative approaches to future water storage and release regimes. Adaptive management will be required to address the expected rapidly changing values in commercial uses of water and ecosystem restoration especially as the hydrology of the Columbia changes due to a warming climate.

This will ultimately require a different and more adaptable governance model that includes a new focus on ecosystem-based function. Future decision-makers with oversight of the operating entities must develop adaptation strategies and be flexible as both values and water availability will inevitably change in the future.

The Columbia Basin is one system despite the international border. The basic tenet of the Treaty is the equal sharing of all benefits flowing to both Canada and the U.S. Healthy and more resilient ecosystems make economic sense and meet the aspirations of Indigenous peoples as both the value of water and its availability change. There is a real opportunity in Canada and the U.S. working together on water issues, especially in these troubled times as relations with our southern neighbour are tested around trade and other priorities. Water often brings people and communities together and the Columbia Treaty renegotiation is no different.

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