The Burton townsite prior to reservoir flooding

The Burton townsite prior to reservoir flooding

COLUMN: Americans learn about local Columbia River Treaty story

"What is the value of our region’s abundant water, and who profits from its use?"

An odd sort of news story recently hit the headlines of Spokane’s major daily, the Spokesman Review. Odd, because it concerns events that took place half a century ago. News, because many Americans reading the story were learning about these events for the first time.

Spokesman reporter Becky Kramer’s Aug. 9 story concerns the signing of the Columbia River Treaty in 1961, its Canadian ratification in 1964 (after much national controversy on this side of the boundary), and the troublesome after-effects of the treaty for Kootenay residents of the Columbia, Duncan and Kootenay River valleys.

With Treaty flood control provisions set to expire in 2024, water-storage provisions for hydro power efficiencies may also be open to changes — if either country notifies the other of an intent to renegotiate. Unlike flood control, hydro power efficiencies have no expiration date.

So far, neither country has served notice. Review teams on both sides of the boundary have consulted the public. Bureaucrats are in “wait and watch” mode. Residents of the vast international basin need to be, too.

As Kramer’s story makes clear to her American readership, the design of the storage system could be updated to consider more fairly the rights of Canadian residents living in the upper Columbia Basin.

In my experience researching the subject and speaking at international Treaty conferences, most Americans seem shocked to learn of the heavy Treaty costs born here, including the displacement of 2,300 Kootenay residents from their homes and negative ecological impacts to many recreational fisheries.

Under the current treaty, the Duncan and Columbia River valleys operate as giant bathtubs that hold water strategically. BC receives money annually for the water storage earmarked for hydro-power efficiency. The ambitious engineering project devastated the agricultural and ecological life of the upper basin. Americans living further south experienced few, if any, negative consequences.

The Treaty also granted the US permission to build Libby Dam in Montana. According to governments and negotiators, Libby is not a “treaty dam” because it does not store water as the Treaty dictates. Canadian residents living along the trans-boundary Koocanusa Reservoir don’t care about these technicalities. They would also like to see the damaging effects of water storage consider their concerns.

In a few words, residents living close to reservoirs want more stable water levels, somewhat like those enjoyed in the US portion of the basin.

A review of the comments to Kramer’s feature story demonstrates American readers quick to take note of one fact: BC’s annual half-share of the Treaty benefits for enhanced power production does not flow specifically back to the region where the costs are born.

Annually, $80 million to 300 million flows north into BC provincial coffers. Even a small annual percentage of this payout would amount to significant potential mitigation for our region’s damages: to enhance deeply damaged fisheries, heal the ongoing social scars in various affected communities, and contribute to development of sustainable agriculture.

Have a read of Kramer’s story. It brings up yet again a question I ponder frequently: What is the value of our region’s abundant water, and who profits from its use?

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes lives in Nelson. She is guest curator for an exhibit on the local effects of the Columbia River Treaty, opening in November at Touchstones Nelson. Her book on the Treaty story, A River Captured is forthcoming in fall 2016.

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

Just Posted

Interior Health update. File photo.
86 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

The new deaths are from Heritage Square, a long-term care facility in Vernon

The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy is the largest protected area in southeastern B.C. Photo: B.C. Parks
Province adds land to Valhalla and Purcell parks

Both additions enhance the parks’ ecological values, the province says

RCMP responded to a report early Friday morning of a suspect firing a gun at a Salmo home. Photo: Black Press
RCMP arrest woman who fired shots at Salmo home

The woman allegedly discharged a firearm early Friday morning

Nelson is holding a municipal by-election to replace former councillor Brittny Anderson, who resigned in December. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Nelson by-election nomination deadlines set

Candidacies must be registered between Feb. 9 and Feb. 19

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the press theatre at the B.C. legislature for an update on COVID-19, Jan. 7, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 spread steady with 509 new cases Friday

Hospitalized and critical care cases decline, nine deaths

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

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

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

A COVID-19 outbreak at Vernon's Heritage Square long-term care home has claimed seven people. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Two more COVID-19 deaths at Vernon care home

Heritage Square has now lost seven people due to the outbreak

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options

Premier John Horgan says he is seeking legal advice on whether it can limit interprovincial travel

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government reinforces importance of anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

Most Read