The buzz of an electric alarm clock, the sweet heat of the shower, steam rising from a coffee mug. All over the Northwest, people start their day with energy from Columbia River dams.
From its headwaters in British Columbia to its outlet at the Pacific Ocean, the 1,200-mile Columbia is an electrical powerhouse, generating more kilowatts than any other North American river. The prodigious output is a result of 14 dams and international teamwork.
A 1964 treaty signed by the United States and Canada created the framework for joint operation of the Columbia River’s dams, and divides the power benefits. The treaty led to the construction of three storage dams in British Columbia, which provided flood control and ramped up electrical output at downstream dams.
For 45 years, the treaty has been hailed as a model of U.S.-Canadian cooperation. But some policymakers and academics say the technocratic document – which doesn’t address endangered salmon or climate change – is due for a rewrite. The possibility of a renegotiated treaty is stirring interest on both sides of the border.
Although the Columbia River Treaty doesn’t have an expiration date, either country can cancel most of its provisions after September 2024, with a 10-year minimum notice. If either the U.S. or Canada wants changes, treaty discussions could begin as early as 2014.
“This is a really big deal – an opportunity for the two countries to rethink Columbia River operations,” said John Harrison, a spokesman for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland, whose mission includes environmental mitigation for the dams.
“The treaty was primarily concerned with flood control and hydropower generation,” Harrison said. “As we know in the 21st century, that’s not enough.”
Tribes want to see salmon addressed in the treaty. Scientists say that climate change, which is melting British Columbia’s glaciers, diminishing mountain snowpacks and altering spring runoff in the Columbia Basin, is a crucial consideration. In British Columbia, where the construction of treaty dams flooded farms and displaced more than 2,000 residents, some lingering hard feelings remain.
The dams’ operators, meanwhile, hope for a straightforward document like the original 20-page treaty.
About 64 percent of the Northwest’s electricity comes from hydropower. At certain times of the year, the region also sells surplus electricity to California and Arizona.
“If you talk to people who are close to the operation of the treaty, it’s doing what it should be doing, and it’s working fine,” said Barb Cosens, an associate professor at University of Idaho’s School of Law. Others, she said, “see an opportunity to address some of the issues that weren’t dealt with in the original treaty.”
Starting Thursday, professors and researchers from five universities – including the University of British Columbia – will gather at the Coeur d’Alene Resort for a three-day Columbia River Treaty symposium. “We want to build knowledge of the history of the treaty and the politics behind it,” said Cosens, one of the organizers.
The talks will launch research to help inform future treaty negotiations, including ongoing climate studies.
Demands on the Columbia River system will only increase as weather patterns shift, Cosens said. She predicts that conflicts will intensify over flows for power generation versus water spilled over the dams to help young salmon migrate to the ocean. Since the treaty was signed, 13 salmon runs in the Columbia Basin have been listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“Unlike some heavily diverted rivers, such as the Colorado, the conflict in the Columbia isn’t over too many people wanting to take water out of the river,” Cosens said. “It’s over in-stream demands for hydropower and for fish.”
Fisheries handled differently then
The Columbia River Treaty was negotiated and signed in a much different era, said Anthony White, who works on treaty issues for the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal marketing arm for electricity produced at the dams.
North America was in a recession during the late 1950s. Both the U.S. and Canada wanted cheap electricity to attract new industry to the Northwest and British Columbia, where local economies relied on timber, mining and agriculture jobs.
Flood control was also vital. In 1948, spring floods caused major damage from Trail, B.C., to Portland. More than 50 people were killed, and 30,000 lost their homes. The city of Vanport, Ore., a largely African-American community north of Portland, was destroyed when a dike broke.
By building large storage dams in British Columbia, the governments could address both energy and flood-control needs. The dams would hold back the spring runoff, gradually releasing the water to maximize downstream power generation.
The treaty led to the construction of Duncan, Keenleyside and Mica dams in Canada. It also allowed the U.S. to build Libby Dam on the Kootenai River, a tributary of the Columbia, with a reservoir that backs 42 miles into Canada. The four dams were completed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, more than doubling the basin’s water storage capacity.
BPA’s White described the treaty as an engineer’s document, a technical “how-to” describing the international agreement over hydro operation. “There’s no reference to fish,” he said.
By the time the treaty was signed, Columbia Basin salmon were extinct over most of their Canadian range. The upper Columbia runs died out in the 1930s, when Grand Coulee Dam was built without fish ladders.
“It’s not that fisheries were ignored; they were handled differently than they are today,” White said. “At the time, with the science they had, managers knew how to handle the fish problem. It was to build hatcheries.”
White said he personally believes that the treaty’s narrow focus on hydropower and flood control is a good fit. Sixteen other U.S.-Canadian treaties deal with fish issues, including the Pacific Salmon Treaty, he said.
But treaties are negotiated by the U.S. State Department – not by agencies like BPA, White said. Federal governments in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa ultimately will decide what the treaty will look like after 2024.
Water management or hydropower plan?
At the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission in Portland, Bob Heinith takes a different view.
The treaty is a water management plan. It should address flows for salmon and other wildlife needs, said Heinith, the commission’s dam coordinator.
The Nez Perce, Yakama, Warm Springs and Umatilla Indian tribes, which make up the intertribal fish commission, retained the rights to harvest salmon from the Columbia River and its tributaries when they signed treaties with the U.S. government in the 1850s.
A sockeye run in the Okanogan River is one of the few wild salmon runs left in the Columbia Basin that still supports a tribal fishery, Heinith said. The sockeye pass through nine Columbia River dams on their way to the ocean.
The juvenile fish start their long trip to the ocean in mid-May. High flows to flush the young sockeye downstream are critical, Heinith said.
“Their survival is tied to how quickly they reach the Columbia River estuary,” he said. “If you’re managing the river strictly for power production, you probably won’t want to send water downstream in the spring, when demand for electricity is relatively low.”
In Canada, the possible treaty renegotiation also evokes strong interest – both from First Nations, which wants salmon reintroduced to the upper Columbia watershed, and residents who live along the treaty dams’ reservoirs.
Kindy Gosal is the director of water and environmental affairs for the Columbia Basin Trust, which was created in Canada to mitigate the dams’ environmental and social impacts. The B.C. dams brought tremendous benefits to two nations, Gosal said. The dams’ construction also led to the forced buyout of farms and displacement of 2,300 British Columbia residents.
“The people of this region, in context of the 1960s, were caught off guard by the enormity of what would happen,” Gosal said. “In many circles, the destruction of the way of life in the basin was viewed as a catastrophic event. … If we can learn anything, it is that people weren’t adequately engaged in the process.”
This time around, the Columbia Basin Trust wants to improve on that. “We feel there needs to be meaningful consultation with people in the basin before decisions are made,” Gosal said.
Despite strong regional interest in the Columbia River Treaty, Heinith said, it’s hard to gauge whether the treaty is a national priority yet.
“There’s an awful lot going on at the U.S. State Department,” he said. “The year 2024 probably seems like a long ways away when you’ve got two wars going on.”
The river is at the heart of many aspects of Northwest life – power, salmon and recreation.
“Water will be the foremost issue that our children and grandchildren will face,” Heinith said. “It’s going to be a challenging arena, and the Columbia River Treaty is going to be at the heart of that challenge.”
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