Pacific Northwest groups urge U.S. to modernize Columbia Treaty

The ecosystem is at risk of collapsing if things don’t change say groups

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In September a letter was sent to the U.S. State Department and other key federal agencies collectively, from 32 Pacific Northwest-based conservation, clean energy, faith, fishing, and civic organizations. The letter urged the U.S. to spread the word about efforts being made to overhaul the Columbia River Treaty, which was established in 1964, and outlined that U.S. citizens and tribes should be involved with all decisions pertaining its future.

While Canada has maintained ongoing communication with all citizens and is working diligently in full partnership with Indigenous First Nations, the U.S. negotiating team has not been following suit or held a public meeting in over two and a half years. Its written updates continue to be minimal and infrequent.

“‘Save Our Wild Salmon’ joins many other organizations to remind our leaders that Northwest people care deeply about the health of the Columbia River, and that we expect to be informed and involved in decisions that affect its health and future,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, in a September press release. “The lack of meaningful public engagement by U.S. Treaty negotiators is concerning. We are worried about the potential for rushed decision making without public dialogue or involvement - and (are) asking the Biden administration for much greater transparency as we move forward. Canada has shown that robust public engagement is possible while also respecting the confidentiality of negotiations.”

2024 will mark 60 years since the U.S. paid Canada $64 million to ensure these flood control operations would be provided throughout the Columbia River, which is colloquially referred to as ‘the dammed river’. The thirteenth round of Columbia River Treaty negotiations was held in Richmond, B.C. this past summer. The spring of 2019 marked the first time First Nation representatives were involved in the negotiation process. Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of the Columbia River Treaty Branch and Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, shared it was very successful.

Secwépemc (Shuswap), Syiilx Okagnagan and the Ktunaxa (Akisqnuk) First Nations make up what improvements could be made to the Treaty. They, along with the B.C. and Canadian government, make up the Indigenous-led Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative. This initiative has been working diligently to ensure the upper Columbia River will see salmon thrive again like they did before all the dams blocked their yearly journey home. The Secwépemc (Shuswap) band celebrated their first successful release of 1,500 salmon in the upper Columbia River in August.

It is not only those on the Canadian side of the border who feel salmon are sacred. The Columbia River Treaty has been in effect for the past 58 years with two main purposes: to maximize hydropower production and engineer flood control. Organizations want U.S. leaders to add ‘Ecosystem Function’ to this list, as the health of the river and its ecosystems depend on it. With climate change escalating, we are impacted more by flooding, heat waves and wildfires. Rivers become too warm for salmon and other fish, so it is essential that the operation of the Columbia Basin hydro system be updated to maximize resilience of the watershed and the communities that depend on it. Prioritizing ecosystem function will ensure that fish have sufficient river flows in spring and early summer, especially in low to average water years. More than a third of the Columbia River’s water source comes from Canada, including some of its coldest and most climate-resilient sources.

“Our salmon, and all of us who depend on them, face an existential threat as the Columbia River and its tributaries continue to warm. This summer's extreme heat has - again - made the threat plain,” said Brian Brooks, executive director, the Idaho Wildlife Federation, in a press release in September. “Northwest sportsmen and women need a modern Columbia River Treaty that helps tackle this challenge. The United States' treaty negotiating team must craft an agreement with Canada that adds ‘Ecosystem Function’, the health of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, as a third Treaty purpose.”

Over the last four years, both Canada and the U.S. have been in negotiations to update or modernize, the Columbia River Treaty. If a new agreement is not reached by mid-September, 2024, the terms of the current treaty will shift responsibility for flood control south of the Canadian border to the U.S., potentially forcing major operational changes at eight dams and reservoirs located in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. These uncertainties leave many concerned about protecting fish and wildlife, honouring tribal treaty obligations, and supporting river communities at the same time. Canada has been called on to work expeditiously with the U.S. to reach an agreement on a modernized treaty that benefits both sides of the watershed for decades to come.

“Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reduce the impacts of flood control on the river that binds all of us together. Today, Canada stores vast quantities of water in massive reservoirs behind huge dams. Coordinated flood risk management through the treaty expires in just two years, abruptly shifting responsibility from Canada to reservoirs in the U.S.,” said John DeVoe, executive director for WaterWatch of Oregon, in a September press release. “This is not how U.S. dams have operated. We lack comprehensive plans for this change. And, we have grave concerns that federal agencies will further de-prioritize the health of fish and wildlife to manage flood risk. Upsetting operations for fish and wildlife, agriculture, hydropower, and other river uses due to inadequate planning and minimal consultation is an unnecessary - and unacceptable - outcome.”

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer