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.

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