The Columbia River Treaty clock is ticking

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
August 24th, 2014

Since 2005, Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has researched and explored the natural and human history of the rivers of the upper Columbia River Basin. 

She speaks frequently at conferences and symposia throughout the Basin on the history of the Columbia River Treaty and its effects on Basin residents.  She has recently completed a manuscript titled A River Captured – history and hydro-electricity in the upper Columbia Basin

An American by birth, Pearkes has been a resident of Canada since 1985 and Nelson since 1994. She has written many articles and several books that explore place and its cultural meaning. 

The Geography of Memory, a history of the landscape and indigenous people of the upper Columbia watershed published in 2002, remains a Kootenay classic.

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 the river historian continues the topic, focusing on the looming September 16, 2014 date, which just happens to be the first opportunity for Canada or the U.S. to inform the other party to make changes to the Columbia River Treaty.

Tick tock goes the clock!

In Columbia River Treaty policy circles, everyone is focused on one date: September 16, 2014. That date approaches.

Why is it so significant?

Out there in the media universe, you may read or hear that this is a deadline, a last chance.  The opposite is true.  September 16, 2014 is the FIRST chance that either Canada or the U.S. can notify the other country of their desire to make changes to the Columbia River Treaty. 

I have written before about the slippery nature of this treaty document, not unlike the water it controls.  The CRT governs the efficient use of water for hydro-power production, and protects communities from spring floods. 

The portions of the CRT that deal with hydro-power efficiencies do not have an end date. They are, in legal language, “in perpetuity,” which basically means, for the life of the Treaty, which basically means, forever.

Flood control provisions are different matter.  The $69 million, one-time flood control payment that the U.S. paid Canada in 1964 secured flood control only up to 2024.  (In today’s indexed dollars, that would be USD$547/CAD$598.)   Let’s look at the history of why flood control is treated differently from hydro-power efficiencies. 

The original CRT did not specify an end date to flood control or to hydro power efficiencies.  After the CRT was signed in 1961, it was ratified soon after by the U.S. Senate, vote count 99-1. 

Not so in Canada. 

Controversy ensued, initially over how the dams Canada promised to build would be financed.  While the financing debate went on between B.C. and the federal government, a national controversy rose about what Canada might have given away. 

One criticism suggested that the flood control payment had been too good a deal for the U.S.  Flood control “in perpetuity” for $69 million?

The CRT controversy in Canada continued until early 1964.  That spring, Lester Pearson was elected prime minister.  During the campaign, Pearson had asserted that the CRT needed to be scrapped and re-negotiated.  Once in office, he changed his view. 

He announced alterations and amendments to the signed treaty, called “protocols.” 

One of these amendments concerned flood control.  After 60 years, the U.S. would have to make use of its own storage reservoirs to their maximum ability before calling upon Canada for assistance.  

This and other changes to the original CRT that had to do with Kootenay River flows satisfied some of the dissenters about the treaty enough that the CRT could be ratified and implemented on –- you guessed it – September 16, 1964.

The CRT has a 10-year notice period for any changes.  Counting forward 60 years, we arrive at 2024.  Counting back 10, we arrive at 2014.  That is why a few weeks from now, we will reach a sort-of watershed date.  What could happen?

  1. Nothing.  The date could come and pass with no notification from the U.S. of an intent to renegotiate.  The U.S. would not need flood control to be in place until the following spring, 2025.  A ten-year notice period for that date would mean that we could be drumming our fingers waiting for May or June, 2015. 
  2. The U.S. could notify intent to re-negotiate in a few weeks.  Such a re-negotiation would likely be amendments to the CRT, not a whole new treaty.  I have heard several government policy experts and academics say that the U.S. would be highly unlikely to engage in a process of a new treaty, because such a document would eventually require legislative approval, a near impossibility in a fractious Washington, D.C.
  3. Canada could notify intent to re-negotiate in a few weeks.  This is highly unlikely.  The dams on Canada’s main stem give Canada flood control on the Columbia.   On the Kootenay system, (which includes Kootenay Lake residents), Canada has the storage at Duncan Dam, as well as storage provided by Libby downstream in the U.S.  Libby is a U.S. flood control and hydro-power dam.  Also, B.C. Hydro’s recent and controversial decision to investigate dredging at Grohman Narrows is partly motivated by a desire to have more flexibility during high water events.

As the upstream country, Canada holds many of the cards.  The province has – to date – done an excellent job positioning for negotiations on flood control, which appears to be the primary motivator for the U.S. to take a fresh look at the CRT. 

Next column will look at U.S. options for providing its own flood control, and some of the reasons why the U.S. may want to continue to pay Canada for services rendered. 

Stay tuned!


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This post was syndicated from https://thenelsondaily.com
Categories: Op/Ed


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