How has the Columbia River Treaty most impacted the Columbia Valley? To answer that question, all roads eventually lead to the work of the Columbia Basin Trust. The Trust is a regional Crown corporation that manages roughly $1.6 billion worth of assets for the ongoing economic, environmental and social benefit of the Columbia Basin. Last fiscal year alone, the Trust doled out $69 million in grants across the Columbia Basin.
“The Trust’s mandate is wonderfully broad,” said Greg Deck, a founding director and former Chair of the Trust. “There isn’t much that can’t be made to fit within the description of economic, social and environmental benefits.”
Since its founding twenty-five years ago, it has had an enormous influence on the Columbia Valley. How best to measure that benefit? The range of valley projects and initiatives birthed with Trust money is staggering. Community centres, child care facilities, food bank centres, paved pathways, literacy programs, partnerships in nature conservation, fibre optic development, the list goes on.
“Money is the easiest thing to quantify, but I don’t think it is the most useful measure,” Deck said. “[The Trust] has always favoured projects that enhance a sense of identity. The support to the arts community, for instance, was for the whole basin, so artists and those who support them met to direct the funding towards projects that they considered together. It created value that was more than just financial.”
Of course, the Trust doesn’t just hand out money either. The organization, which is owned by the people of B.C., has a rigorous vetting process to determine the best and highest use of its capital allocation. So, to understand how and why the Trust invests in Columbia Basin communities, it’s necessary to know how and why it came to be. And that history has all to do with the long and complicated history of the Treaty. I’ll start there and try and make it brief.
Let me first clear up an important misconception about the Treaty’s expiration date. In my previous piece, I wrote the Treaty is soon expiring. That’s not entirely true. The Treaty as a whole will not, in fact, expire in 2024. It’s the flood control provision of the Treaty that will. After 2024, a new era will begin of a “called upon” operation of Canadian storage space for the US for flood risk management. That is, unless another agreement is made. Another point: either Canada or the United States can unilaterally terminate the Treaty any time after Sept. 2024, provided written notice is filed at least 10 years in advance. Sept. 2014 was the earliest either party could’ve given 10 years’ notice. To date, neither country has issued a termination notice.
For the Columbia River, 1948 was a “big water year” with devastating consequences. A big water year happens when winter snowpack is high, spring temperatures are hot, and there’s plenty of rain. When those three factors coalesce, freshet volume is titanic. The Canadian portion of the Columbia, with its narrow, steep river valleys exacerbate big water years. In 1948, the freshet was so sudden and forceful, communities near the Columbia’s mouth were hit hard by what was later classified a 100-year flood. Vanport, a community since annexed by a sprawling Portland, was devastated. Lives were lost.
As Nelson based author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes wrote in her book A River Captured: The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change, “By the time the water receded, damage to human property was estimated at US$100-million in 1948 currency values. Fifty people died, 120,000 people were evacuated, and 38,000 people lost their homes.”
In response, US President Harry Truman made it clear to the American public: It was time to tame the Columbia. Keep in mind though that by the late 1940’s, the Columbia already had been dammed. The Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams, both in the state of Washington, were built as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930’s depression era “New Deal” campaign of public construction projects. Both, however, were designed for irrigation and power generation purposes rather than flood control.
The American appetite for further control of the Columbia was palpable. Two other important factors were also at play: rapid population growth in the Pacific Northwest, and the increasing power needs of the region’s growing industrial base. “The American aluminum industry moved west around the time of the Second World War,” said Corky Evans, a founding and current board member of the Columbia Basin Trust. “And aluminum plants require a tonne of electricity.”
Meanwhile, up in B.C., 1952 was the year W.A.C. Bennett was first elected as provincial leader. It was a job he held for twenty consecutive years. To this day, he remains B.C.’s longest serving premier. A fiscally conservative small businessman, Bennett’s Social Credit Party prioritized B.C. infrastructure development. Later, he became known as the “black top premier” for the amount of highway built during his tenure. He also wanted for the province cheap, reliable power.
Bennett’s federal counterpart on matters related to dam engineering was the former WWII army general Andrew McNaughton. In 1950, McNaughton was appointed by the Louis St. Laurent federal government to chair an International Joint Commission (IJC) with the United States. The IJC considered, among other major engineering projects, the development of the St. Lawrence and Columbia Rivers for power generation.
If the the 1950’s was about proposals, arguments, engineering studies, and political maneuvering on both sides of the border, the 1960’s was the decade of signatures and ratifications and the beginning of construction. In 1961, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Columbia River Treaty. Ratification came three years later when President Lyndon Johnson, Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Premier Bennett gave their signatures.
Deal points: Canada agreed to create 15.5 million acre-feet of water storage by building three dams all in the Kootenays: Duncan, Keenleyside and Mica. The United States was given the option to build the Libby Dam in Montana. An option they eventually exercised. The Libby Dam, built in 1972, created the Lake Koocanusa reservoir.
In exchange for providing and operating the water storage projects, Canada received an upfront payment of $64 million for 60 years of future flood control benefits in the United States. Canada also received an entitlement to one-half of the estimated additional hydroelectric generation capability at power plants on the Columbia River in the United States that resulted from the operation of Treaty dams in Canada. This became known as “Canadian Entitlement.”
The ratification of the Columbia River Treaty was a significant accomplishment. A model example of international trans-border cooperation. The agreement, however, was far from perfect. While the Treaty was being negotiated, there was a severe lack of consultation with the people who lived in the shadow of where the three Canadian Treaty were to be built. Those people, of course, the people of the Kootenay’s. Us. All 180,000 or so of us (current population estimates) from Nakusp to Jaffray to Spillimacheen to Nelson to Winlaw to Rossland to Canal Flats and all points in between.
Dam construction uprooted entire communities, sacrificed productive farmland, and grossly neglected First Nations groups – a sore point still being borne out to this day. In fact, on Oct. 8, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case involving a dispute between the Sinixt First Nations and the Province of British Columbia. A straight line connects the Columbia River Treaty’s shortcomings with that pivotal court case concerning matters of sovereignty.
The disenfranchisement felt by Columbia Basin residents toward the Columbia River Treaty seeded the formation of the Columbia Basin Trust. Which, when it did finally come to fruition in the mid 1990’s, had much to do with luck.
“That the Trust came to be was an accident of history,” said seventy-two-year-old Corky Evans. Corky retired from provincial politics several years ago. He stays busy now farming his five acres of land just outside of tiny of Winlaw in the Slocan Valley. And as I already mentioned, is a current board member of the Trust. Corky welcomed me to his back porch where, for an entire afternoon, he told of the forces at work behind the Trust’s formation.
To Corky, the creation of the Trust had much to do with a desire for local control of a local natural resource. A logger for much of his life, Evans saw first hand how B.C.’s forestry industry transformed through the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s what inspired him to go into politics. First at the regional district level and then as an MLA. He eventually became a cabinet minister in Mike Harcourt’s B.C. NDP government of the 1990’s. The Trust was in his portfolio as a minister.
When B.C.’s logging industry consolidated, decisions on what was logged and where too often happened in Vancouver board rooms. “My experience in forestry informed my approach to advocating for the Trust.” To Corky, there were parallels. “Problems with the Treaty came down to that age old problem of a colonial style government where decisions affecting a certain group of people are made without their input.” Taxation without representation remember, fuelled the United States’ desire for independence from the Brits.
“Before Mike Harcourt [of the NDP] won the provincial election in ’91, the party passed an important motion that set the stage for the Trust’s creation.” That motion was a resolution to somehow provide compensation for those most affected by the Columbia River Treaty. “Many people from the Arrow Lakes area moved over to the Slocan when Keenleyside was built. Addressing the Treaty’s shortcomings was top of mind for a generation of people that elected me.”
All five Kootenay districts voted NDP when Mike Harcourt won the provincial election of 1991. “That was another happy accident. We had that key party motion passed regarding the Treaty, and then the entire Columbia Basin became politically aligned.” And when Cominco, the owner of the Waneta Dam at the mouth of the Kootenay River, went bankrupt, that again was another happy accident.
Corky: “Harcourt wasn’t going to simply bail out Cominco. What was identified, however, was Cominco’s ownership of the water rights for both the Brilliant and Waneta Dam generating stations. Buying those water rights was a way to transfer money to Cominco.” Provincial ownership of those rights opened the door to a key aspect of the Columbia Basin Trust – an ownership stake. Flash forward to today, over the next four years, 85% of the Trust’s revenues will come from its investments in power projects. “Basin residents can expect the Trust to continue to deliver on its mandate in perpetuity,” Deck said.
“Because [the Columbia Valley] was the least affected, we were the least interested in the formation of the Trust,” said Deck. “Compared to the area around the Kinsbasket or Arrow reservoirs, where there were still living victims of the forced resettlement, our communities didn’t engage the same way in the process.”
In fact, the stretch of river from Canal Flats to Donald is one of only two free-flowing reaches of the Columbia River above Portland. “The other is a small section around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. And ours is the only section where the rate of flow is still uncontrolled by upstream reservoirs. It’s why the wetlands from here to Golden are such an important and rare resource.”
Corky likes to say that the success of the Trust, twenty-five years going strong, is proof that locals can manage their own resources and, at the same time, get along with the government. But he’s not without his critiques. “My vision for the Trust would be for its focus to be more on solving on the big pressing problems of our future,” he said. An example he gave would be a program along the lines of the Trust acting as a broker for the purchase of nascent renewable energy, or creating a market. In other words, subsidizing green energy opportunities that are subject to difficult economics as compared to fossil fuels. “The politician’s conundrum of focusing on the present vs. the distant future, the Trust absolutely has to cope with that.”
The next instalment of this series on the Columbia River Treaty’s impact on the Columbia Valley will spotlight the positive work being done at the community level in literacy.