Residents of the Pacific Northwest have a special connection with two of the world’s greatest river systems. One, the Columbia, begins its 1,243-mile journey in southeastern British Columbia before flowing through Eastern Washington, gathering water from Idaho and Montana, forming the Oregon-Washington border, and then plunging into to the sea. The other, the Amazon, is a continent away but shares its name with one of the world’s largest tech companies, headquartered in Seattle.
There has never been a more important time for Northwest residents to plug in to their local watersheds. Many people are aware of debates surrounding the impact of dams on endangered fish and orcas and the proposed restoration of the Lower Snake River. But there is another important process happening farther upstream on the Columbia River that also warrants careful attention.
Since 1964, the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty has governed river flows on the Columbia and defined the transboundary relationship between the two countries that share its watershed. Though renegotiations have been underway since 2018, some Americans are agitating for the U.S. to terminate this agreement. Doing so would squander a once-in-a-lifetime chance to collaboratively shape a unified watershed future.
In a recent op-ed in the Seattle Times (“Terminate the other treaty with Canada,” Feb. 18) Tom Karier, the author, describes the treaty as a business contract gone awry, with the U.S. locked into an unfair deal and the federal government unwilling to terminate it. He supports his position by erroneously claiming that the purpose of the treaty was for the U.S. to gradually pay for Canadian dams like a mortgage, in exchange for water storage. Fact check: The treaty was founded on the principle of two countries managing the river together and sharing benefits from that management equally.
Historical inaccuracies aside, such a narrow perspective on the river prevents us from seeing the treaty for what it really is: a relationship. The renegotiation of this agreement is an opportunity to reimagine and reshape relationships, not only with our northern neighbors, but also with the river itself.
The original Columbia River Treaty valued the river exclusively for flood control and hydropower efficiency, leaning on Canada to store upstream water in giant reservoirs. The treaty ignored the health of river ecosystems and fish. It failed to involve sovereign Indigenous nations. It neglected to consult with residents whose communities were flooded.
Rather than terminate this agreement, we need to continue to work toward a revised treaty that manages the watershed holistically. Negotiators must find a way to share power benefits and pay for flood control that is fair for both countries. A new agreement must also address the threat of climate change, support the restoration of fish to previously blocked areas, and add the health of the river as a primary treaty purpose equal to flood control and power production. The U.S. must offer tribes a role in decisionmaking that is commensurate with their sovereign status, as Canada has done with its First Nations.
Whether you live near the Columbia River or not, it connects us all. Once among the world’s greatest salmon rivers, it was a free-flowing artery of tremendous natural wealth. Now, the river languishes in a stair-stepped series of reservoirs behind 14 mainstem dams, where water flows through turbines that spin power into our region’s grid. Every day, the Columbia’s hydropower vibrates in our cellphones and buzzes through thousands of miles of transmission lines that crisscross the Northwest.
Indigenous people hold profound cultural connections to the river and its fish, which go back thousands of years. Even giant tech companies, whose products appear to exist in thin air, depend on the Columbia and its tributaries. Behind the “cloud computing” services offered by Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple and others are giant data centers. Many of these climate-controlled computer warehouses are located in the Northwest, to capitalize on the Columbia’s abundant hydroelectricity.
Northwesterners: The Columbia River and the Columbia River Treaty affect our lives in many ways. We can’t afford to let narrow perspectives foreclose on our chance to work together for a shared future.
Eileen Delehanty Pearkes is the author of “A River Captured: the Columbia River Treaty and catastrophic change.” Graeme Lee Rowlands has cycled and paddled the entire length of the Columbia River. His writing related to the Columbia River Treaty has appeared in more than 50 publications. He is on twitter at @gleerowlands. Both Americans live and work in the U.S. and Canada.
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