The Columbia River Treaty has been a hot topic over the last year with ongoing negotiations, public meetings, and the recent Transboundary Conference held in Kimberley. We are going to take a brief look at the status of the Treaty in this article.
To start with, let’s define the Columbia River Basin. The basin extends across the US and Canada border. Approximately 15% of the Basin land is located in Canada, with roughly 35% to 38% of the annual flow volume originating in Canada. That number can climb up to about 50% during high water years. The Columbia River is North America’s 4th largest river by volume and has been described as its most powerful, losing 2,600 feet of elevation between the headwaters in Canal Flats and the mouth in Oregon.
The Columbia River Treaty is an international agreement between the US and Canada that was implemented in 1964. The purpose of the treaty was to regulate the joint development and management of the Columbia River, in order to coordinate flood control and optimize hydroelectric energy production on both sides of the border.
A devastating flood in 1948, along with an increased demand for power from the industrial development boom following the end of World War II, led to the demand for a coordinated plan for water management between Canada and the US. The plan was to address the concern of flooding, and energy generation through the creation of dams.
After the catastrophic floods, and almost 20 years of studies and negotiations, the newly developed Columbia River Treaty was signed by
President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Diefenbaker in 1961. In 1963, Canada and British Columbia came to an agreement that most treaty benefits, rights, and obligations would fall on the province of BC. The treaty was ratified and came into full effect in 1964.
As a result of the treaty, the Mica, Duncan, and Keenleyside dams were constructed in B.C. to provide approximately 16 million acre-feet of primary flood control storage. This essentially doubled what storage was available in the US, and greatly improved flood control for our southern neighbours by being able to capture the high spring flows, and then release them gradually over the remainder of the year. Additionally, B.C. made 67 square kilometres available for the reservoir for the Libby Dam, which today is operated by the US, creating the Koocanusa reservoir.
In exchange for the flood control and power generation storage provided by B.C., the US agreed to provide one half of the potential (not total) US downstream power benefits. These benefits are calculated using old formulas set out in the treaty. This is known as the “Canadian Entitlement” (CE). At the time, our power demand was much lower, and the CE was sold at a fixed price of 254.4 million USD for the first 30 years. Today, CE Values are much higher at 100 to 130 million USD per year.
When the treaty was ratified the US also paid for flood control benefits, called “primary” flood control, which was a lump sum of 64.4 million USD. This paid for 60 years of flood control for the US, which is set to run out in 2024. As a result, regardless of what happens with the treaty moving forward, this primary flood control will expire in 2024 and switch to “called upon” flood control. Called upon flood control is not well-defined in the current treaty, but is essentially an ad hoc flood response regime that will require the US to make effective use or drain their reservoirs before calling on B.C. to help to avoid/minimize flood damages.
Currently Canada and the US are working to modernize the Treaty. As of 2014, the treaty can be terminated at any time by either party with 10 years’ notice. Based on provincial review in 2011, BC has identified the below themes as being important moving forward:
1. Create and share benefits fairly.
2. Reassess value in today’s terms, including (but not limited to) irrigation, and recreation/tourism.
3. Acknowledge socio-economic, ecological, and cultural impacts to B.C. that are not currently considered as part of the treaty.
4. Discussions on salmon and salmon re-introduction (currently there are limitations to fish passage around some of the dams).
May 29th of 2018 began the Canada and US negotiations in Washington, DC. Since then there have been eight rounds of negotiations. Updates on each round of negotiations can be found on the government website at engage.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty. There is another round of community meetings to seek input and provide updates about the treaty and ongoing negotiations. You can attend our local meeting on October 30th, 2019 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce Lions Hall.
Feel free to contribute to this conversation on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter @LakeAmbassadors.
Shannon McGinty is the program coordinator for the Lake Windermere Ambassadors. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office at (250) 341-6898.