Residents of the Columbia Basin and beyond gathered online on October 18, hoping their concerns about the low water levels of the Arrow Lakes reservoir would be addressed. The 90-minute presentation focused on the situation through the lens of the Columbia River Treaty, and the current negotiations happening to modernize it.
“I want to start by emphasizing how serious this situation is to me,” Katrine Conroy opened. “It’s been an extremely challenging year for everyone in and around the Arrow Lakes reservoir.” Conroy is the Kootenay West MLA and Minister of Finance. She also supports BC’s involvement in treaty negotiations as the Minster Responsible for the Columbia River Treaty. She assured the attendees that the Columbia River Treaty negotiating team “shares your frustrations.”
Other representatives from the BC government, BC Hydro, and the Columbia River Treaty negotiating team emphasized the challenge and complexity of the situation. Environmental conditions, anticipated winter electricity demands and treaty obligations have combined to create conditions that have not been seen on Arrow Lakes since the 1970s.
A dry year
Since July, residents of the reservoir area have watched water levels drop rapidly, sinking from 438.91 metres (1440 feet) in July down to 426.72 metres (1400 feet) by the end of August. Debris and stranded fish, and even quicksand, has been exposed along the expanding shoreline. By the end of November, it would not be unexpected for the water to drop to 420.6 metres (1380 feet).
“The story [this year] starts with a combination of three unfortunate events,” said Darren Sherbot, Manager of System Optimization at BC Hydro. “Low snowpack coming into spring, the local drought, and the provincial drought.”
The low snowpack melted early and all at once, creating a huge inflow of water in May then almost nothing in the following months.
“Snowpack is really important in our operations,” said Sherbot. “It stores water for the spring and, under average conditions, provides a steady stream of inflow as it melts.”
Rain can offset a low snowpack, Sherbot said, but this year the province saw a hot and dry spring with limited rainfall. This sent the Arrow Lakes area, and the rest of the province, into a drought.
When only one area of BC Hydro’s system is experiencing drought, Sherbot explained, it can usually be balanced. However, the dry conditions all over the province this year didn’t allow for the same flexibility.
And the drought also made it necessary for BC Hydro to build up sufficient stores in preparation for the winter months. It held back water in the Kinbasket Reservoir, which meant it couldn’t prop up Arrow Lakes levels in the same way it normally could.
“We have an obligation to keep the lights on for our customers,” Sherbot said.
Columbia River Treaty
A more complicated piece of the puzzle is the Columbia River Treaty, ratified between Canada and the United States in 1964. Under the treaty, BC is obligated to send a certain volume of water to the US at specific times of the year, for things like flood-risk management and downstream hydropower generation. Also under the treaty, the US is required to deliver one-half of the estimated potential US power benefits back to Canada.
Since 2018, Canada and the US have been in negotiations to modernize the treaty.
“What worked over half a century ago just doesn’t necessarily work today,” said Conroy. “And how well it worked, even all that time ago, that’s dependent on who you ask.”
By today’s standards, very little consultation was done when the treaty was being developed. The treaty was also created in the ’60s, in a different world in comparison to the province today.
The treaty is evergreen, meaning it never expires. However, the agreement for Canada to provide assured flood control operations to the US expires in 2024. Depending on what is negotiated, this could mean a shift to an ad-hoc system, where the US calls upon Canada to use space to prevent floods downstream.
“Adaptive management is going to be important moving forward,” said Kathy Eichenberger, BC’s lead on the Canadian negotiation delegation. “It doesn’t quite exist in the current treaty.”
Treaty negotiations have happened 19 times since 2018. Eichenberger is hopeful that an agreement in principle will be reached soon. When one is reached, the team will bring it back to Basin residents for feedback.
“We are going to show you how your input is reflected in the agreement in principle,” she said.
“We hear you”
Every presenter reassured listeners that the public’s concerns are being shared at the negotiating table. Concerns include impacts on the environment, recreation, socio-economics and Indigenous cultural values.
This time around, unlike in the ’60s, the Ktunaxa, Syilx, and Secwepemc nations are present in the negotiating room and are full participants in meetings.
“The reason I raise this is to highlight the diversity of positions and the various views that have come into what Canada brings forward at the table,” said Stephen Gluck of Global Affairs Canada and member of the negotiating team.
Nakusp Councillor Aiden McLaren-Caux sits on the CRT Local Governments Committee. The committee was formed by local governments in the basin to engage with the treaty process.
In 2021, the committee provided its recommendations to the negotiating team.
“Recommendation 13: Less fluctuation in reservoir levels,” McLaren-Caux said. “It is a priority for basin residents that water levels and all treaty-related reservoirs fluctuate less to reduce impact on ecosystems, tourism, recreation, and transportation.”
The recommendation also specifies the need for a minimum summer drawdown level for the Arrow Lakes reservoir, to avoid extreme drawdowns like what was seen this year.
“The team has indicated that our recommendations don’t differ from what’s being pursued in negotiations,” said McLaren-Caux.
Members of the Local Governments Committee do not have a seat at the negotiating table. Neither does Conroy, but she says she is advocating hard for residents of the Basin.
“I am in frequent contact with the BC treaty team, and federal and First Nations leaders to discuss what needs to change,” she said. “All of this input feeds into and strengthens [Canada’s] negotiating position to create a modernized agreement that better supports the Basin’s ecosystems and the people who live here.”
“Democracy is a participation sport,” said McLaren-Caux. “I think it works best when its citizens educate themselves on these pressing issues and engage directly with their elected leaders and have their voices heard, just like so many of you have done.”
Many audience questions were left unanswered, but the team is working to get those answers out to the public soon.
A recording of the presentation can be found at www.engage.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty/2023/10/18/low-levels-in-arrow-lakes-reservoir/
Rachael Lesosky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice