Walk along the banks of the Columbia River in British Columbia and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just like any of the province’s other great waterways. You might see a sturgeon or glimpse one of the more than 60 dams in the Columbia Basin.
But the Columbia is not like other rivers. On the one hand, it crosses the United States border to empty into the Pacific in Oregon. The Columbia River Basin is also a vital source of electricity, providing about 40 percent of the electricity. all US hydropowerwhile BC ties almost half of its total electricity generation in the region.
Those dams also serve to control floods, in an effort to prevent a repeat of the massive floods of 1948 that left around 50 dead and 46,000 homeless.
But what makes the river truly special is the unique treaty that governs those dams.
Drafted between Canada and the United States and ratified in 1964, the treaty outlines the control of the river’s water flow and the benefits of that hydropower bonanza, including the tens of millions of dollars a year that come with it.
Home18:45Canada haggles with the United States over a shared river
The Columbia River Treaty is being negotiated again — a process that has already taken years — and the potential deal could have profound consequences for both the river’s electricity production and the people and wildlife who depend on it.
In an interview on CBC Radio Home that aired Saturday, British Columbia chief negotiator Kathy Eichenberger said the Canadian government had some key priorities, including maintaining greater flexibility over water flows in Canada and adding considerations around the river ecosystem “as a third leg of the treaty that is based on energy generation and flood control.
Negotiators have been locked in round after round of talks, with the 19th round scheduled for October in Portland, Oregon.
Some provisions of the treaty will expire in September 2024, after which Canada could provide flood control services to the United States on an ad hoc basis.
“We need to take the time to improve a treaty that urgently needs to be renewed and incorporate aspects like ecosystems, salmon, adaptive management and climate change,” Eichenberger told host Catherine Cullen.
“These are all new concepts that were not discussed in the original treaty,” he said.
Value of ‘Canadian law’
Americans have their own concerns regarding the revised treaty, and perhaps the value of hydropower will return to Canada first.
That part of the power is called “Canadian law.”
“We are giving Canada the output of a gigantic power plant every year,” said Scott Simms, president of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group. said The Seattle Times in August. “It might be transactionally easier to push wheelbarrows full of cash and dump them at the Canadian border.”
Eichenberger responded that Canada believed it could demonstrate that what it received was half the incremental benefit of power generation.
“The way we manage flows in Canada really increases [the Americans’] ability to generate more electricity to meet the needs of industry and its citizens,” Eichenberger said.
“That is the fundamental principle of the treaty … to create a benefit and share it equitably. And that is our north star,” he said.
Seeking protection for the ecosystem
Although the ecosystems of the Columbia River region were not a primary concern in the original negotiations, they have long been a concern for indigenous groups, who are now a prominent part of the Canadian negotiating team.
Fish populations, particularly salmon, are a major concern.
“[Salmon is] beyond just being important to our people,” Chad Eneas, elder of the Penticton Indian Band, told Bob Keating, a freelance journalist who spoke to people across the valley as part of a documentary for Home.
“I think it’s important in terms of being a keystone species in Columbia.”
Others who live or work along the river have different concerns, such as the impact of land lost when dams and reservoirs were built along the river.
Twin sisters Janet and Crystal Spicer grew up in a family in Nakusp, British Columbia, that farmed near Arrow Lakes, which is part of the Columbia River system. The farm was lost when the Hugh Keenleyside Dam was built in 1968.
“This whole thing is so shortsighted. And it’s irretrievable. That’s the thing. It’s not like it can be reversed. It can’t. I think it was a shocking act of violence and cruelty to just drown us.” said Janet Spicer, who still farms on what remains of a property her father farmed.
“The farmland won’t come back, but people want a living river,” added her sister Crystal Spicer.
Canadians along the river have been advocating for Canada to maintain greater control of water flows so that fluctuation is less dramatic and less destructive to ecosystems.
Author Eileen Delahanty Pearkes said it is key that the ecosystem and residents of the river be taken into account at the negotiating table.
“The entire health of the land and water in this region depends on flow. The details are less important: Canada gets this or the United States gets that,” he said.
“I love the words of an indigenous advocate: ‘A river for the benefit of all.'”