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River Talks — The Non-Treaty Storage Agreement

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has been researching and writing about the history and politics of water in the upper Columbia Basin since 2005. 

Her book on the Columbia River Treaty, A River Captured, is expected to be released 08/11/2016.  Recently, her travelling exhibit on the Columbia River Treaty, curated for Touchstones Nelson, won a national award from the Canadian Museum Association.

Pearkes has agreed to help The Nelson Daily readers understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.

Today Pearkes writes about the importance of, what else, water and the importance of the Non-Treaty Storage Agreement.

It’s a hot dry summer already, and it has only just begun. 

From my temporary office at the end of a dock on Kootenay Lake’s West Arm, I watch the swallows dance across the cold, clear water in early morning. Near-by, on an old ferry piling, a mother osprey waits patiently for the delivery of another fish to feed her young brood.

These days, I feel a real wash of gratitude for our mountain water.

Recently, the U.S. Northwest Power and Conservation Council sent out a message to Americans living in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the drought conditions throughout much of the region, they said, the fish and the air-conditioners will both be provided for.  

It’s important to highlight some words from Tony Norris, an operations research analyst for the Bonneville Power Adminstration (BPA). BPA is a U.S. Federal agency tasked with marketing the power produced by many of the Columbia River dams on the main stem south of the border. 

Tony says:

“More than half of the estimated 8 million acre-feet of flow augmentation for this spring and summer is being provided from reservoirs in British Columbia, under the Columbia River Treaty [CRT] and the Non-Treaty Storage Agreement [NTSA].”

These are important words for those of us living in the region we all love. 

Eight million acre-feet is the amount of water it takes to cover that many acres with a foot of water.  This is a sizable amount of water.  Canada will provide five of the eight million to the river system this year, above and beyond what it normally would give under the terms of the Columbia River Treaty. 

What is “Non-Treaty Storage?”

The Columbia River Treaty authorized the construction of three dams in our region (Duncan, Keenleyside and Mica) and gave an option for a fourth – Libby in the U.S.  

The Treaty required the first three dams to store 15.5 million acre-feet of water (lots and lots of the stuff) to provide flood protection for downstream communities and to enhance power production. 

Mica Dam’s reservoir provided 5 million acre-feet more water storage than needed. More on that can be found in the Columbia River Treaty Review E-Newsletter update.

This non-treaty storage is the wiggle room that engineers can play with.  It’s a sort of savings account.  How it is distributed each year is determined by the NTSA, the first of which dates back to 1984, when B.C. Hydro needed to reduce flows out of Mica Dam in order to fill the recently completed Revelstoke Reservoir. 

There have been several versions of the NTSA since then, with the most recent one completed in 2012 and valid until 2024.  All water geeks can read the entire agreement.:

Agreements that supplement the CRT are important.  The upper Columbia Basin is a water-factory built by the power of Mother Nature.

In 2012, heavy spring rains set up a glut of supply and the system had an opposite challenge.  All the gates were wide open, sending as much water as possible downstream to avoid flooding on Kootenay Lake. 

Canada turned to the U.S. and forged a special, one-time agreement to raise the level of the Arrow reservoir in order to maximize the amount of water draining out of the Kootenay system. 

This year, water is scarce, and the capacity of our storage reservoirs is really helping the Americans through a difficult, dry year.

Originally, the NTSA, and other agreements related to Columbia River operations were the result of closed conversations between government agencies, engineers, and those focused on the operation of this complex, expensive and profitable system. 

The most recent NTSA – approved in 2012 - was different. 

B.C. Hydro engaged in an extensive public consultation process.  

Does the NTSA address all the concerns of those living in the region where the water is stored? 

Not necessarily.  It is, however, the result of a more open, more consultative process than many agreements in the past.  And this NTSA is in place until 2024 – the same year that many flood control provisions in the CRT expire.

Let’s hope any re-negotiations of the NTSA or the CRT will give full consideration to the impacts of any water storage or management on the people who live here.