Aug. 9, 2023
By Joseph Bogaard and Martin Carver
Negotiators representing federal, provincial and First Nation governments will gather this week in Seattle to continue efforts to modernize the Columbia River Treaty in the 18th round of negotiations. Much has changed since the 1964 treaty ratification. Negotiators have an opportunity to hammer out an agreement reflecting today’s values and priorities, equipping the drainage basin — which is the size of France — to meet diverse challenges.
Although the meeting occurs outside the Columbia Basin, we hope the conditions we live with in the basin — wildfire, warming water, extreme heat — focus the negotiators on two tasks: Make the treaty a sturdy tool for supporting the health of the Columbia River through these precarious decades. And make a more just treaty that will begin to remedy grievous harms Indigenous peoples have suffered through almost a century of dams and reservoirs built and operated without their consent. Both tasks are served by the restoration of the ecological benefits arising from a healthy, functioning river.
An important timeline faces the negotiators. In the treaty, mutual cooperation between the U.S. and Canada created the Columbia’s present system of coordinated flood management. But on Sept. 16, 2024, that system changes to an uncertain “called-upon,” or less defined, arrangement.
While there is justifiable pressure to reach an agreement swiftly, the main goal should be to get it right.
The 60-year-old treaty is about transborder power production and flood control. Tribes and First Nations have long proposed that ecosystem function — health of the river — be included as a treaty purpose. Taking this step would make the treaty a tool to restore and sustain the well-being of the Columbia River and its major sub-basins and to integrate river health with hydropower and flood protection. In official documents and public statements, negotiators on both sides have already messaged the importance of building ecosystem values into a modernized treaty.
We ask the negotiators to now publicly support this as an additional purpose.
Portland and the scattered rural towns represented by British Columbia’s Local Governments Committee are about as far apart on the Columbia River as it is possible to be. Portland depends on the coordinated, dam-based flood management that could soon change. The Local Governments Committee seeks flexibility to operate Canadian Treaty reservoirs for local objectives and improved ecological outcomes.
Geography and history put these parties in different corners with different stakes. But both the Local Governments Committee and the city of Portland support making the health of the river a treaty purpose. Improving river health provides a fertile ground for collaboration.
With “river health” as part of the treaty’s purpose, our agencies and communities can widen their collaborative vision to both reduce flooding of Canadian reservoirs and increase resilience and capacity of U.S. floodplains to enhance their protection of communities and infrastructure.
Early in the negotiations, a joint Canada/U.S. hydrologic modeling team explored future treaty options. Although discontinued in 2017, this type of scientific collaboration could again be established to restore damaged aquatic areas in Canada and their adjacent riparian zones and to increase the potential of salmon’s return to the upper Columbia River.
Such positive outcomes would also promote reconciliation, since Indigenous cultural survival depends upon a healthy river.
Changes in treaty governance are also needed so First Nations and tribes can participate in the operational management of reservoirs and river reaches affected by dams. In addition, First Nations and tribes offer unique contributions to river restoration given their integrated knowledge systems, experience with collaborative processes and close association with river ecosystems.
Columbia River Treaty issues are many and complex, so there is much to renegotiate. While monetary decisions about treaty benefits matter, health and justice decisions will matter more to the river from here forward.
Cross-border collaboration and cooperation can expand far beyond what now exists. In the colossal but intricately connected Columbia Basin, deep collaboration is the only viable path forward with much chance of success through the hot, grinding times we have entered. As the negotiators draw mental lines in the sand, and imagine win/lose outcomes, may they also imagine a more collaborative treaty for all corners of the Columbia Basin.
Joseph Bogaard is the executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in Seattle.
Martin Carver is the lead/facilitator of the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative in Nelson, British Columbia.