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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Jon O’Riordan in the Times Colonist 
(British Columbia, Canada)

November 19, 2014 The opportunity for renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty in 2024 — one of the largest international trans-boundary water treaties in the world — coupled with the prospect of a changing climate, requires Canada to consider the costs and benefits of climate-change adaptation in its forthcoming discussions with the U.S.

Flood control and power generation were joint cornerstones of the treaty when it was signed in 1964. The current flood-control provision will be modified in 2024 unless the parties agree to renegotiate. As well, the U.S. returns to B.C. an average of $150 million a year in incremental potential power benefits, based on increased regulation of storages in the Canadian Columbia necessary to maintain agreed-upon flows.

Some parties in the U.S. argue that these payments are too high, but because of the changing climate in the basin, they might, in fact, be too low.

A recent summary by the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society of anticipated climate changes in the region shows that, over the next 50 years, average temperatures are expected to increase (between 1.8 and 2.7 C), as are the frequency and duration of extreme hot spells, especially in the U.S. portion, with implications for water shortages and agricultural losses.

Monitoring of glaciers in the Canadian portion of the basin indicates they are shrinking, which will lead to a short-term increase in annual runoff until they finally disappear, with implications for seasonal-flow timing and availability. Warmer air carries more moisture, so the semi-regular high rainfall events associated with El Nino are likely to become more intense and frequent, increasing the prospect of severe flooding.

First Nations and basin residents on both sides of the border are expressing concerns regarding the health of ecosystems. The Adaptation to Climate Change Team at Simon Fraser University’s school of public policy notes that resilience to climate change is improved by protecting and restoring ecosystem diversity and services.

Well-functioning ecosystems reduce flooding, increase retention of water during droughts and temper heat waves through shading. Thriving ecosystems also store more carbon, reducing emissions that are fuelling climate change.

Both the B.C. and U.S. governments have released statements of interest for renegotiating the treaty, supporting increased protection of ecosystem values and taking into account the implications of a changing climate. These actions have the potential to add value to some of the resources under consideration.

For example, the treaty entities estimate that, due to increased storage capacity in Canadian Columbia reservoirs, downstream U.S. flood-control benefits include about $32 billion in reduced damages over the past 50 years — a service for which the U.S. paid just $64 million under the original agreement. The potential for severe flooding due to changing climate conditions will increase Canada’s valuable role in flood control.

The U.S. government has passed legislation since 1964 to protect migrating salmon in the U.S. portion of the Columbia. Studies sponsored by the SFU team assessing ecosystem values associated with salmon indicate that U.S. residents collectively value the presence of salmon from $330 million to more than $1 billion annually. Under a changing climate, flows from regulated

Canadian storages will become increasingly vital to the health of these species and their aquatic ecosystems.

Large areas of the U.S. basin are dependent on Columbia water for irrigation, and might face significantly lower flows during the summer months as climate change advances. Using existing hydrologic models, we can estimate that the cost of maintaining water levels to compensate for this through Canadian storage regulation could top $1 billion under severe drought conditions.

In other words, as the climate changes, water security will become more important than power security throughout the Columbia Basin.

Canada, as the upstream nation, has a responsibility to prioritize these pending changes in hydrology in its approach to the treaty discussions. It should promote the associated increase in commercial and ecological values in Columbia River flows that adaptation to climate and hydrological change will represent to a range of U.S. interests.

Jon O’Riordan is senior policy adviser to SFU’s Adaptation to Climate Change Team and a former B.C. deputy minister of sustainable resource management.

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