The treaty’s language and principles focus on the economic value of water, rather than on human values, writes Eileen Delehanty Pearkes. Photo submitted

COLUMN: Storm clouds loom over Columbia River Treaty table

Historian Eileen Delehanty Pearkes: the renegotiation of the treaty needs a new set of values


Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

This week, Canadian and American officials will gather in Washington D.C. to begin renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty. The 1964 international agreement between the two countries governs the use of water stored in large reservoirs in British Columbia, to control spring floods and increase hydropower efficiencies as water passes through several American dams downstream, on its way downhill to the sea.

With all the talk about oil and pipelines these days, we can sometimes forget about one of Canada’s other great natural resources: water. The Columbia River is the fourth-largest watershed by volume in North America. Its compact hydrology – from the west slope of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean in just 2000 kilometers, drew the attention of hydro-engineers early in the 20th century. Production of electricity on the Columbia and its tributaries has formed a large part of 20th century prosperity in the West.

Suffice it to say that there is a lot of money involved in the Columbia River system. Billions of dollars. Hence, the gathering in power circles in Washington D.C. At issue primarily are: 1) the 2024 expiration of the current flood control storage that Canada provides to the U.S.; 2) Canada’s 50% share of hydropower advantages provided to American power producers that the treaty requires; and, 3) the possibility of restoring some ecosystem function to river operations, something that was not considered in the 1964 treaty, and has led to a deeply troubled ocean salmon fishery. Salmon need water to move.

The Columbia River Treaty has long been lauded as a model of cooperation, efficiency and good will. But that is really only true for the government of B.C., which receives the annual Canadian Entitlement to the tune of $100-300 million annually – directly into provincial coffers. And, for the government of Canada, which gets bragging rights for signing an agreement that gave Americans what they needed. And (lest we forget), for the city of Portland, Oregon, which has built and developed extensively on the Columbia’s natural floodplain. To this day, Portland continues to develop on that capricious floodplain. The city depends mightily on the cooperative, genteel treaty, and assumes that Canada will continue to hold back water upstream.

Ah, but we do not appear to be living in a cooperative and genteel era. The clouds have rolled in to transform the sunny days into stormy skies. As I have watched the controversy erupt over pipelines, and listened to indigenous voices rising to speak their values, I see a fault line opening up in how we in Canada think about our natural resources, how we value them economically and culturally, and what ethical impact our actions can have. And with that faultline comes the possibility of a larger shift, one that can remake our world.

I have my sympathies with those who worry about pipelines running through their communities, and about tankers loaded with bitumen threatening the ocean habitats of those creatures who have no voice in the debate. So, too, do I feel for Albertans, with their version of prosperity, and perhaps their very economic survival, slipping away much like water that hasn’t been dammed. The rational side of me can relate to that other point about “investor confidence.”

The pipeline debate sounds a lot like what happened in the 1960s, during the Great Canadian Controversy over the Columbia River Treaty. Back then, Canadian government officials perhaps too rapidly and enthusiastically signed an international agreement in Washington D.C., with no real thought to impacts in southeastern B.C. (sound familiar?) They gave only a brief, passing thought to the landscape, the water and the 2400 Canadians who would be forced to relocate. The result was a considerable uproar. Many Canadians decided to be uncooperative. With the Americans standing by, drumming their fingers, waiting for ratification, Canada took nearly three years to get passage of the treaty through Parliament. They did so only after a few key provisions were amended, by some protocols attached to the original document.

One of these protocols limited the flood control Canada would provide (for CAD$69 million) to 60 years. Originally, the treaty Canada signed gave away that flood control forever. Now, with the end of this status quo flood control in 2024 now looming on the horizon, Americans have asked Canada to come to the negotiating table. They want certainty about flood control, and (of course) they don’t want to pay too much.

As an historian, I see the limiting of flood control provisions as a direct result of the political controversy. Reading and writing about that part of the treaty’s history confirmed in my mind that though our democracy is imperfect, it does work. People expressed their outrage, their dismay between 1961 and 1964. Change happened.

I don’t mean to suggest that things turned out rosy in 1964. Those who were concerned for their farms, their livelihoods and their ecosystems lost the larger battle. They watched their evacuated communities and rich soils being flooded over by reservoirs. In a situation that predicts the outcome if Site C is, in fact, completed, residents of southeast B.C. watched, powerless, as the rich farmland disappeared. They listened as the sky went quiet of songbirds. They dangled their fishing lines in water that was soon starved of nutrients to support aquatic species. They suffered heart attacks. Engaged in addictive behaviours. Died of grief. Moved away.

Just last night, when I was speaking to a group of British Columbians about the Columbia River Treaty and its impacts, someone in the audience asked me if it was true that the two countries are now planning to sit down at the re-negotiation table without representatives from the Tribes and First Nations, those who have lived all along the Columbia for thousands of years. I had to say yes. It pained me to say yes. The response from the audience was interesting, and it came from more than one person. Haven’t we learned?

The Columbia River Treaty happens somewhere. And so, too, as we are finding out, do pipelines and the latest plans for dams. That somewhere is the land and water that forms our common home. It is the place that we depend upon for our very survival. As we rush about through our daily lives, we have in many ways insulated ourselves from this basic fact. Those of us who live in the landscape where the four, mega-project Columbia River Treaty dams were constructed (Duncan 1967, Hugh Keenleyside 1968, Mica 1973, and Libby 1975) live every day with the realities of those decisions. The Columbia River Treaty was long on economics, but short on love.

Speaking of love, I have an idea, and it’s a sunny one. Let’s move this week’s opening Columbia River Treaty negotiations to the region where all the impacts of the first agreement were felt. The weather is great right now. We can issue gumboots to participants, so that they can stand in the nutrient-starved water or reservoir silt as they discuss how they will ask for more from the river, rather than begin to give back. That way, they might realize that change is on the wind.

The change of which I speak is one that will knit people and places together again. The original Columbia River Treaty was the result of separation, not attachment. The treaty’s language and principles focus on the economic value of water, rather than on values. The economic system that built Canada gave birth to this treaty. It depends on people not caring too much about where they live. This economic paradigm possesses many wonderful qualities: expertise, enthusiasm and rationality, to name a few. But it often lacks the vision that gives birth to a full understanding about the consequences of its choices. It’s an approach just about entirely devoid of love.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes is the author of A River Captured: the Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change.

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