Maps of the Columbia River circulating in the U.S. often stop at the international border, as though the world beyond is unknown. Rivers, forests and wildlife don’t recognize such borders. For thousands of years salmon returned to spawn along this undivided river. Indigenous people lived and buried their dead here.
The international border is the 49th parallel, drawn in London and Washington, D.C., across the river-watershed home for indigenous people and fish and wildlife. Despite the political line, we remain one region with shared and binding history, culture and economy. Americans and Canadians together.
One tie that binds us together is reciprocal education. Community Colleges of Spokane and Selkirk College are jointly hosting the sixth annual international conference “One River - Ethics Matter” in Castlegar, B.C., on May 30-31.
Castlegar is located at the confluence of rivers, the Kootenay and Columbia. With worsening forest fires and massive salmon die-offs from warming downstream reservoirs, the ethics conference will spotlight youth at risk, climate change, and renewing the Columbia River Treaty.
Indigenous, religious and academic leaders will gather to discuss the Columbia River’s past and future, ethics, and in the words of the Northwest Roman Catholic bishops’ Columbia River Pastoral Letter, actions we must take “to effect a spiritual, social and ecological transformation of the watershed.”
Only one-sixth of the Columbia River Basin is in Canada, producing about 40 percent of the water flowing into the Pacific Ocean. In especially warm years with little snow, that number climbs toward 50 percent. With climate change, the Columbia’s cold, water-rich Upper Columbia is increasingly valuable.
Just as tribes gathered at Kettle Falls to trade goods and fish for ocean salmon, people today engage in regional commerce. Canadians travel to Spokane, Colville, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and many other communities. Americans travel north, experiencing beautiful British Columbia. Canadian and American flags fly side-by-side. Dollars trade hands in a robust, regional border economy.
The Peace Arch at the border between the two countries near Vancouver, B.C., is inscribed: “Children of a common mother,” symbolizing enduring friendship across a long international border. Here, outside the Columbia Basin, Canadians’ and Americans’ political leaders met in 1964 to complete the Columbia River Treaty that would devastate the Upper Columbia.
The Columbia River Treaty manages for two purposes only: hydropower and flood risk. The treaty is silent on health of the river, riparian habitat, survival of salmon and salmon-based cultures, and indigenous sovereignty. Once, 16 million to 30 million salmon returned to the Columbia River Basin annually, the world’s richest salmon river. Under the current treaty, the river is managed as a dam-machine that generates wealth for some at costs to others.
The treaty authorized the construction of four major water storage dams – one in Montana and three in B.C., setting in place American-Canadian joint governance of the international Columbia River. Building these dams and reservoirs required logging, bulldozing and flooding vast wildlife and fisheries-rich forested valleys of the Upper Columbia. Hugh Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar, B.C., forced 2,300 people from their homes.
Treaty negotiations began a year ago. Much is at stake for the Upper Columbia on both sides of the border. Negotiations are closed to the public.
Regional citizens, acting as a “community of the Columbia,” are striving to influence their destiny through learning about and urging that an updated international river treaty get right what the original treaty got wrong. Health of the river – “Ecosystem-based Function” including restoring salmon above Grand Coulee Dam – needs to be added as a third treaty purpose coequal with hydropower and flood risk. The river needs a voice.
“If you are not at the table, then you’re on the menu.” Canada has invited aboriginal First Nations into the treaty negotiation sessions as observers. We remain hopeful that American negotiators will also invite the aboriginal Columbia Basin tribes.
Against a backdrop of historic wrongs and unfolding climate change, stewardship and justice-based river governance is within our grasp. Water is fundamental. Water is life. As the indigenous tribes who speak Syilx, one of the Columbia’s indigenous languages, have memorialized in their Water Declaration, “When we take care of the land and water, then land and water take care of us. This is our law.”
Mindy Smith, MD, MS, is a family physician and medical editor who works with Citizens for a Clean Columbia advocating for the Columbia River ecosystem. The Rev. Martin Wells is retired bishop of the Eastern Washington, Idaho and Wyoming Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
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