One River, Ethics Matter – A Columbia River Treaty Review

A few years ago, people started talking about the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) and its impending renegotiation deadline of September 2014.  The earliest date a participating country (Canada or US) could terminate the CRT was September 2024, but they must give a 10 year notice; so you could see why the upcoming renegotiation was of importance – if either country was not satisfied, they could decide to give notice to terminate the treaty at this point.

So leading up to September 2014 there were several groups and organizations– some citizen/grassroots and some government and some a mix of both – in a frenzy of activity to discuss what should or might happen to the CRT.  A variety of studies had also been set in motion to look at different scenarios – broadly described as “Treaty Continue”, “Treaty Terminate” or “Treaty Plus” – and options within those scenarios.

September 2014 came and went and…nothing.

Well, lots, really, but not much in the public eye. Since sometime in 2013 it seems there has largely been a waiting game in place to see what the Americans will do. However, in that time a few things have become clear. First of all, “Treaty Plus” seems to be the preference on both sides of the border. Although nobody can say, specifically, what this means, it generally means continuing on with the Treaty, but with some changes – hopefully improvements.

There has also been support on both sides of the border for “ecosystem function” to form a new, third purpose of the Treaty beyond just hydro-power production and flood control. The tricky thing there is that ecosystem benefits north of the border don’t necessarily equate to ecosystem benefits south of the border, and vice-versa. Another point of dispute is likely to be that the US thinks they are paying us too much under the Canadian Entitlement clause while we think we aren’t being paid enough for all the benefits being provided to the US – particularly as water for irrigation purposes are and will become more and more important for the US agricultural industry as climate change impacts increase.

It seems that Canada’s main bargaining chip is that, absent any agreed upon changes, flood control provided to the US will automatically change in 2024 from “assured” to “called-upon”. While what exactly this means is not clear, it does seem clear this is something the US is worried about and, hopefully, something Canada can use to strengthen our bargaining position and avoid being strong-armed into a new or continuing arrangement that sees the Columbia Basin ecology sacrificed in order to provide various services and benefits south of the 49th parallel.

There is currently a group composed of a variety of stakeholders from all different areas in the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin to discuss and stay up to date on the status of Treaty negotiations and other, related topics and issues. This group is called the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee (“CBRAC”) and it was initiated by the Province of BC (Ministry of Energy and Mines), the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments’ Committee and BC Hydro. CBRAC is meant to be a diverse, Basin-wide group representing a broad range of perspectives, interests and geography, which help inform hydroelectric operations in the Columbia Basin and potential future improvements to the Columbia River Treaty.

The inaugural CBRAC meeting took place in September 2014 and the group has come together to meet in person about 2-3 times per year since then.  All meeting summaries and presentations given to CBRAC can be found online at http://blog.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty/regional-advisory-committee/.

I have been involved as a CBRAC member since the Committee formed and, what I can say about it 2.5 years into the process is that CBRAC is composed of an extremely engaged and passionate group of participants. While the initial purpose and direction of the group was a bit fuzzy, I now see the group’s primary role has evolved into providing a voice for the Columbia River Basin – both in Treaty negotiation matters and in hydro-electric operations more generally. What is in the best interests of the Columbia Basin is an extremely complex question, but it is one that CBRAC grapples with regularly. CBRAC also aims to be a channel for 2-way communication with the communities in the Columbia Basin. If you want to learn more beyond what is on the CBRAC website, or if you have specific questions, concerns or ideas that you would like brought forward to CBRAC, I would encourage you to contact me directly.

Another exciting development on this topic is that Revelstoke will be the location for the “One River, Ethics Matter” Columbia River Treaty Conference being held in May 2017. Similar conferences have already taken place in the US with impressive turnout. This is the first such conference to take place in Canada and will provide a forum for learning about and discussing the history of the Columbia River and making ethical choices around the Treaty by considering the interests of First Nations, the ecosystem and other interests along the River as we move forward. This Conference will be an excellent opportunity to learn about our history and, hopefully, move our societal consciousness away from being doomed to repeat the mistakes and transgressions made the last time the Columbia River Treaty was being negotiated.

– Jody Lownds, NCES President



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