This sketch map appeared on a 1930s pamphlet produced by the Washington State Irrigation League. It shows proposed irrigation plans for the dry mid-Columbia Basin: a canal through Spokane or the Grand Coulee Dam project that was ultimately chosen.

This sketch map appeared on a 1930s pamphlet produced by the Washington State Irrigation League. It shows proposed irrigation plans for the dry mid-Columbia Basin: a canal through Spokane or the Grand Coulee Dam project that was ultimately chosen.

COLUMN: A growing thirst south of the border

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes on climate change, U.S. water shortages and the Columbia River Treaty

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

The dry spring weather has set our region up for summer concerns about fires and the health of our forests. Relative to other parts of the international Columbia River basin, we in southeast B.C. may have less to worry about.

Washington state governor Jay Inslee recently extended a state of emergency to cover 50 per cent of the state, where 2018-19 winter snowpack was 50 per cent of normal. Drought and decreased river flows there threaten not only the forests and rivers, but agriculture and some municipalities. Our neighbours south of the line have water much on their minds.

Concerns about drought and climate change are real, and are being felt in the context of the Columbia River Treaty. Since its inception, the treaty has been about managing large amounts of water in the upper watershed (located principally in B.C.), for the entire river system across several U.S. states. Only two stated principles govern the 1964 treaty: hydropower efficiency and flood control. Two other principles have risen in the past decade, jostling for attention: salmon re-introduction and reliable water supply.

Loss of salmon to the upper watershed was not due to the treaty. That happened in 1942, when Grand Coulee Dam was completed. Salmon are not mentioned in the treaty. Nonetheless, the recent focus on renegotiation has created an opportunity for this issue to rise into public discussion. Neither are municipal or agricultural water supplies directly connected to the treaty, other than the fact that it states that “domestic use” sits outside the agreement. This issue, too, is rising in public interest, especially in Washington state’s rural communities where water for agriculture is important to the economy.

Recently, the Spokane Spokesman Review published an excellent study of the Odessa aquifer, an underground water supply created during the most recent ice age (around 10,000 years ago). This massive aquifer has been tapped steadily since the 1950s, to irrigate crops in the dry expanse of central Washington. It supplements water pumped from Grand Coulee dam’s reservoir up into Banks Lake, an artificial canal that carries water to farmers. And now, it’s running dry.

How, when and how much water the Columbia River Treaty stores in B.C. has an impact on the reservoir systems and water supplies south of the border. Changes to the treaty water storage regime may require changes to water use at the state and municipal levels in Washington. This interrelationship between regions is part of today’s complex river system. With the Odessa aquifer running dry, current agricultural practices can only continue if farmers find a source for more water. Changes to what and how farmers grow will require a shift that is often difficult or painful to make.

Treaty authors in the 1950s and ’60s did not imagine and could not have predicted a time of scarcity in terms of water. Their entire focus was on managing what seemed abundant and endless. As the Odessa aquifer drains to saline and sand, as the snowpack in the Cascade mountains thins out, new concerns are rising.

In the end, the Columbia is one river, not two. Our region and its primary resource — water — is tightly connected to regions south of the boundary. We are linked by the great river, as it finds its way to the sea. Whether we are talking about flood control, or salmon, or farming, we are all in this together. The more we talk across that boundary, the more we learn about each other’s concerns, the more it will be possible for us to form a strong, resilient, international basin community.

Nelson author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes writes here once a month.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Five-year-old Bayne Krause poses for a photo with his mom Marianne. Bayne’s shirt reads, ‘I have Cystic Fibrosis. Help keep me healthy, please social distance.’ Photo: Laurie Tritschler
West Kootenay mom promotes awareness of cystic fibrosis

Marianne Krause wants people to know what it’s like for her five-year-old son to live with CF

Police are cautioning drivers to keep a sharp eye on the road after a Fruitvale man hit and killed an elk along Highway 2A near Trail. The driver was reported to be uninjured, though the car was significantly damaged. Photo: Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Heads up for wildlife warn police after crash with elk on West Kootenay highway

The accident happened in the early morning hours of April 30

The Nelson Police Department says it is stepping up enforcement around schools for the remainder of the academic year. Photo: Submitted
Drive safe in school zones: Nelson police

Close calls have police asking for extra awareness from drivers

The higher elevation melt is getting underway as rivers such as Mark Creek in Kimberley are running faster. Paul Rodgers file
Snow packs down just below normal in East and West Kootenay

The West Kootenay in particular had below normal precipitation in April

Interfor’s Castlegar mill is getting $35 million in upgrades. Photo by: John Boivin
Interfor to invest $35 million at Castlegar mill

Project will enhance productivity and competitiveness

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

BCIT. (Wikimedia Commons)
BCIT apologizes after employee’s ‘offensive and hurtful’ email leaked to Métis Nation

BCIT says employee’s conduct has been investigated and addressed

An adult male yellow-breasted chat is shown in this undatd photograph on lands protected in collaboration between the En’owkin Centre and Penticton Indian Band with support through ECCC. The rescue from near extinction for a little yellow bird hinges on the wild rose in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, a researcher says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, A. Michael Bezener/ En’owkin Centre 2020 *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Rare yellow birds need wild roses to survive in British Columbia: researcher

The importance of local wild roses emerged over a nearly 20-year experiment

RCMP officers search around rows of luggage carts as screens block off an area of the sidewalk after a shooting outside the international departures terminal at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Police say gang conflict in Metro Vancouver may be behind shooting death at airport

Police said this generation of gangsters is taking things to new level and have no regard for community safety

RCMP are looking for information on an alleged shooting attempt near an elementary school in Smithers March 10. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News/Stock)
UPDATE: Man killed in brazen daylight shooting at Vancouver airport

Details about the police incident are still unknown

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Most Read