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.

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