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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Declaration1September 26, 2014

Religious and indigenous leaders this week transmitted to U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a “Declaration of Ethics and Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty,” which they say should serve as the foundation for international negotiations regarding renewal of the Columbia River Treaty.

“Both nations need to work together to right historic wrongs and promote water stewardship in the face of climate change,” according to the letter from the religious and tribal leaders. The letter is signed by 14 religious leaders and seven indigenous leaders representing nearly all tribes and First Nations in the Columbia River basin.

"The declaration speaks very clearly of how important and critical it is for there to be justice to correct the many years of injustice to the native people of the Columbia basin, including the First Nations of Canada,” said Matt Wynne, chairman of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.

UCUT is an organization involving five major interior Columbia basin tribes, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. UCUT is focused on ensuring a healthy future for the traditional territorial lands and taking a proactive and collaborative approach to promoting Indian culture, fish, water, wildlife and habitat.

“Religious and indigenous leaders coming together to sign and support this declaration underscores that the future of the Columbia River is not just a political, but a moral issue. Native Americans suffered the greatest losses and the most damage as a result of not being included in the first negotiations leading up to the 1964 treaty. It helps keep my spirit strong knowing that our struggle for justice and stewardship of the river carries so much faith-based support."

“Rarely does the convergence of political responsibility, indigenous rights, and ecosystem benefit converge in such a dramatic and urgent way,” said Bishop Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Anglican bishop. “A modernized treaty for the Columbia River is an opportunity for all the peoples of the Columbia - and the great system of life which is the river ecosystem - to walk through to a new day of justice and well-being.”

The CRT is an agreement between Canada and the United States for the cooperative development of water resources regulation, primarily for flood control and power generation, in the upper Columbia River Basin. It was signed in 1961 and implemented in 1964.

The Columbia River is the fourth largest river on the continent as measured by average annual flow and generates more power at dams in Canada and the northwestern United States than any other river in North America. Its headwaters originate in British Columbia, but only about 15 percent of the 259,500 square miles of the Columbia River basin is actually in Canada.

But Canadian waters account for about 38 percent of the average annual volume, and up to 50 percent of the peak flood waters, that flow by lower Columbia’s The Dalles Dam.

The treaty says that either Canada or the United States can terminate most of the provisions of the treaty any time on or after Sept.16, 2024, with a minimum 10 years’ written advance notice. Both countries announced within the past year that they would like to update the treaty but neither has given formal notice. And negotiations have yet to commence regarding any changes to the document.

A recommendation sent by the U.S. “Entity” heads of the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ Northwest Division -- in December to the U.S. State Department said that a modernized treaty would need to:

“-- better address the region’s interest in a reliable and economically sustainable hydropower system and reflect a more reasonable assessment of the value of coordinated power operations with Canada;
“-- continue to provide a similar level of flood risk management to protect public safety and the region’s economy;
“--  include ecosystem-based function as one of the primary purposes of the Treaty; and
“-- create flexibility within the Treaty to respond to climate change, changing water supply needs and other potential future changes in system operations while continuing to meet authorized purposes such as navigation and irrigation.”

Each country has stated that the benefits stemming from the treaty – revenues from power production and flood control – need to be more fairly apportioned.

The U.S. Entity says that current “entitlement” payments (currently worth $250-$350 million per year) delivered to Canada are higher than actual benefits produced in the United States today.

The declaration developed by the tribes and religious leaders sets forth eight principles for modernizing the Columbia River Treaty that include respecting indigenous rights, protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems with abundant fish and wildlife populations, and providing fish passage to all historical locations.

Political leaders in Ottawa and Washington D.C. have not taken a position on the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.

Federal agencies within the United States have recommended that the United States and Canada "develop a modernized framework for the treaty that ensures a more resilient and healthy ecosystem-based function throughout the Columbia River basin while maintaining an acceptable level of flood risk and assuring reliable and economic hydropower benefits." All four Northwest states, 15 Columbia Basin tribes, fishermen and environmentalists support that recommendation.

British Columbia provincial officials released their draft recommendation in March of 2014. Their recommendation was that the treaty be renewed and that changes occur within the existing framework. The B.C. Province maintains that ecosystem values are currently an important consideration and that they should continue to be a consideration, as well as adaptation to climate change, in treaty planning and implementation.  The federal government in Ottawa that will negotiate with the United States has not yet issued Canada’s recommendations on the treaty.

The declaration highlights what the tribes and religious groups say are key points regarding the rights and management authorities of the Columbia Basin tribes in the United States and the First Nations in Canada that were ignored when the Treaty was implemented 50 years ago.

The declaration is based on the Columbia River Pastoral Letter, signed by the twelve Roman Catholic bishops of the international watershed, that called on everyone to “work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision for our watershed home.”

The request sent to Obama and Harper this week also follows 17 multi-faith prayer vigils held in August along the 1,200 miles of the mainstem Columbia River that focused on the need to restore salmon runs now blocked by dams.

The Columbia River Treaty governs the management of the Columbia River, shared by Canada and the United States. Dams transformed the Columbia River into the world’s largest integrated hydropower machine and reduced flood risk allowing flood plain real estate development.

Dams blocked returning salmon, permanently flooded vast river valleys and wildlife habitat, forced thousands of people from their homes and ancestral fishing sites, and destroyed a way of life known to indigenous people from time immemorial, according to the tribes and religious groups.

“The trust, treaty and honor obligations of the United States and Canada to ensure healthy, sustainable populations of salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, bull trout and other native fish and wildlife, their habitats and other cultural resources were not provided for in the treaty and tribes were not consulted during its negotiation,” according to a press release from the tribes and religious groups.

Both U.S. and Canadian recommendations have said that environmental concerns, such as restored passage for fish, should be included in treaty negotiations.

Links –
-- Declaration on Ethics & modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.
-- Columbia River Pastoral Letter.
-- One River, Ethics Matter (video link).

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