New treaty must address ecosystem concerns
By John DeVoe
January 28, 2018
The entire Pacific Northwest depends on a healthy Columbia River. Soon, the United States and Canada will begin negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. The existing treaty, implemented in 1964, has provided big benefits for the region through hydropower and flood risk management — but at tremendous costs. Now is the time to restore balance.
The current treaty reflects a limited and outdated set of values and priorities. It addresses only two concerns — hydropower and flood risk management. With this agreement in place, Canada built three dams in the upper Columbia basin, the United States built Libby Dam in Montana and the two countries began to coordinate hydropower and flood management operations.
However, when the treaty was first negotiated, ecosystem concerns were not included — they weren’t even on the table. U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations had no say in the negotiations or in the resulting governance structures. Energy conservation and wind and solar power were not yet large factors in meeting our region’s energy needs. Climate change was not yet understood to be a major factor in our future.
Since the treaty’s adoption, Columbia River wild salmon and steelhead populations — once the largest on the planet — have continued to dwindle. Lack of fish passage, impaired streamflows and degraded water quality have harmed our region’s most iconic fish — as well as other important species such as sturgeon — across the basin. As these and other species have continued to slide toward extinction (one need look no further than the devastating 2015 fish kills), the jobs, cultures, traditions and communities tied to the fish have suffered accordingly.
Though few in the U.S. are aware, the dams in Canada have also done significant harm to the environment and communities there. Treaty dams in Canada have permanently flooded important terrestrial habitat. Highly variable reservoir levels create large muddy wastelands in the vicinity of the reservoirs as lake levels go up and down to satisfy current power and flood management operations.
With the treaty now opening for renegotiation, we do not have to stand by and watch salmon slide toward extinction or sacrifice this tremendous opportunity to restore the river’s ecosystem — and river-reliant communities — on both sides of the border. We need to act now to restore balance to the Columbia River basin.
A modernized treaty should include ecosystem function as a third treaty priority, in addition to hydropower and flood management. In 2013, federal agencies, basin states, tribes, conservation groups and power interests already agreed to this in the Regional Recommendation for the Future of the Columbia River Treaty. Now it is time to make ecosystem function real in the treaty. This means much more than providing small amounts of increased streamflows in the few driest years.
A modernized treaty must provide water of sufficient quantity and quality at the right times of year to bring back salmon and other species. A modernized treaty must include salmon reintroduction above Grand Coulee Dam to historic habitats in Canada. A modernized treaty must restore ecosystem function to the Canadian portion of the river basin. A modernized treaty should also include governance mechanisms that include fair representation for ecosystem concerns. And a modernized treaty must begin to right historic wrongs visited upon the original inhabitants of the Columbia River basin.
The Columbia River is the life force running through the heart of the Pacific Northwest, supporting fish, farms, cultures and economies. The existing Columbia River Treaty is very important — but badly out of date. As negotiations begin, it is critical that the congressional delegation and governors of the Pacific Northwest ensure that the U.S. Department of State seizes this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to return balance to how we manage the mighty Columbia, by making sure that flood risk management and hydropower are properly balanced with keeping the river healthy.
A healthier Columbia River — through a modernized Columbia River Treaty — means a healthier Pacific Northwest, for people today and in the future.
John DeVoe is executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon. He submitted this essay on behalf of American Rivers, the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Rivers, the Save our Wild Salmon Coalition, the Sierra Club and WaterWatch of Oregon.