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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

By the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative
July 8, 2020Treaty.siteC

On June 29 and 30, Canada and the United States met for the tenth round of Columbia River Treaty renegotiations. The negotiations were held by web-conference due to COVID-19. Unlike previous rounds, negotiators actually started debating specific proposals. According to press releases issued by both sides, Canada responded to an initial proposal from the U.S. and presented a counter-proposal. This is big news.

The week before, in fulfilment of a pledge made to continue to engage with Basin residents around their issues and concerns, the B.C. Treaty Team released its latest report on local interests and the status of negotiations: a remarkably forthcoming document for a process conducted almost entirely behind closed doors. The Province also committed to engage Indigenous nations, local governments, and citizens on final decisions about the treaty once options become clear.

But as negotiations with the U.S. proceed, options will be whittled down toward a narrow consensus.

That’s why it’s crucial for negotiators to hear from the public now.

Our group, the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative, is participating in an Indigenous-led research process investigating how a modernized treaty could improve the health of Canadian ecosystems. This spring, we released a discussion paper and summary on this topic—and we welcome public comment. The Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee has provided similar recommendations.

The new Columbia River Treaty must include ecosystem function as a third primary purpose, equal to the existing purposes of international flood-risk management and hydropower. This means adjusting dam operations to help restore land now periodically inundated by reservoirs and improve conditions for fish and other aquatic species in downstream river reaches.

In general, reservoir operations should mimic natural systems as much as possible. We also need to have more flexibility in Canada to adapt to climate change. We can make these changes while still generating plenty of power and protecting communities from floods. To support this new mandate, Treaty governance must be reformed with biologists working alongside engineers, better international collaboration, and Indigenous nations central in decision-making. The public must have a strong voice.

More of the ongoing treaty revenue paid by the U.S. should be dedicated to relevant Basin needs.

Many people mistakenly believe the Columbia Basin Trust is funded by the treaty. In fact, it was created with a one-time $376-million payment from the Province, representing well under 10% of B.C. revenue to date.

A new agreement should provide new funds for (1) adaptive ecosystem research, restoration, and management, (2) salmon reintroduction, (3) watershed education for youth and the public, and (4) local food security.

The renegotiation of the treaty is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure a just, ecologically prosperous, and economically sustainable future for the Basin. UCBEC applauds the Canadian negotiating team, which includes the federal and provincial governments and the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, and Syilx Okanagan nations, for breaking away from the treaty’s dark history.

Nothing since colonization has had a more destructive impact on the Upper Columbia Basin than this treaty. Four large dams (Hugh Keenleyside, Duncan, and Mica in Canada and Libby in the U.S.) were built through the treaty, which together inundated around 1200 square kilometres of ecologically- and agriculturally-rich land, flooding over a dozen communities.

To this day, Canadian treaty dams are partially operated to meet treaty requirements that serve downstream American interests. In 1964, the federal government signed the treaty without consulting with Indigenous nations or Basin residents.  BC Hydro and the Province enforced the removal of condemned communities with what many people felt was inadequate compensation and little to no empathy.

Thankfully, we’re living in a different time. We can speak directly to negotiators and ask them to make sure ecosystem function becomes the third treaty purpose so that river flows will be shaped to also benefit ecosystems and their diverse plant and animal communities.

Send a comment to negotiators today by email (, Facebook @ColumbiaRiverTreaty), or Twitter (@CRTreaty).

And when the Province holds its next round of formal public engagement, we all need to show up. We are fortunate to have government officials in charge who truly want to listen. Let’s seize the opportunity.

Submitted by Dr. Martin Carver, Lead & Coordinator, Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative

The Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative(UCBEC) is a collaboration of a cross-section of environmental voices from the Upper Columbia Basin representing provincial, regional and local environmental groups. Current members include the Sierra Club of British Columbia, BC Nature, Wildsight, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Friends of Kootenay Lake Stewardship Society, and the North Columbia Environment Society.

 Friday, July 20, 2018col.gorge

The U.S. State Department will host a town hall meeting in Portland Sept. 6 to discuss the ongoing re-negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.
The meeting will be led by Jill Smail, the State Department’s lead negotiator in talks with Canadian officials that are aimed at modernizing the treaty, which was enacted in 1964.
The town hall meeting at the Bonneville Power Administration’s Rates Hearing Room, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., will follow a round of negotiations that will be held in British Columbia Aug. 15-16, and an Oct. 17-18 round of negotiations that will be held in Portland.
The meeting is free and open to the public. Smail and other negotiators will provide a general overview of the negotiations and take questions. Questions can be sent in advance to
The Columbia River Treaty was enacted mostly to provide flood risk management and affordable hydropower on both sides of the border.
“As the United States continues bilateral negotiations with Canada, our key objectives are guided by the U.S. Entity Regional Recommendation for the Future of the Columbia River Treaty after 2024, a consensus document published in 2013 after five years of consultations among the Tribes, states, stakeholders, public, and federal agencies,” a State Department press release states.
More information on the treaty and negotiations can be found at:
In addition to Smail, the U.S. negotiating team includes representatives from BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, the Department of Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


June 20, 2018columbia river treaty1

International water treaties do not often make headlines in the media. But the start of formal negotiations on modernizing the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada has stimulated a flurry of responses from observers on both sides of the border. Most of these comments have focused on the potential conflict and disagreement between the parties. However, a modernized treaty could offer significant benefits, especially when considering opportunities for restoring ecosystem health to both the Canadian and the U.S. portions of the Columbia as an important priority for the negotiations.

The two main articulated concerns are that the U.S. is paying too much for the Canadian Entitlement — the 50-per-cent share of hydro-power production due to augmented flows from Canadian reservoirs — and the ending of the current flood control agreements in 2024. Both of these issues offer substantial opportunities for Canada to share benefits with the U.S. if restoring ecosystem services plays a central role going forward.

Currently the Treaty dictates that once releases from Canadian storages cross the international border they are charged to the U.S. on the basis that the flows are used to generate power. In fact, some of these regulated flows are now used to augment flows in the Lower Columbia, to facilitate juvenile and adult salmon migration, support irrigated agriculture, and maintain water-based recreation. If the regulated flows from upstream Canadian reservoirs provided just five per cent more water for these uses, the incremental annual value of these flows would be at least as great as the present Canadian Entitlement. Current predictions for a changing climate and hydrology throughout the Columbia in the coming decades will result in less water availability in the U.S. portion of the watershed, particularly in the dry summer months. The value of stored Canadian water for meeting U.S. interests will therefore only increase, and Canada should still be entitled to payment for incremental power production as in the past.

Benefits to ecosystem health in Canada could also result from re-negotiating the flood control component of the Treaty following its expiry in 2024. The annual water level fluctuation in the Arrow Lakes can be reduced once Canada is no longer obligated to ensure there is storage capacity for downstream flood control. This would decrease the exposure of vast areas of reservoir which causes dust storms and difficult access for boaters and recreationists. In addition, large areas of riparian habitat would be restored for wildlife, long-lost agricultural and forest production could be reclaimed, and recreational fisheries could be potentially enhanced.

Minister Katrine Conroy, the lead on the treaty for the B.C. government, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharing benefits from a restored Columbia River to reconcile legitimate rights of Indigenous peoples, to benefit community interests, and to ensure the best science is brought to bear in the negotiations. Ensuring the successful return of a sustainable fishery in the Columbia Basin and the reintroduction of salmon to upstream areas where dams presently block access is a critical element in the aspirations of Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border.

At a recent symposium held at the University of Victoria, scientists and policy makers from all levels of government, academia, B.C. Hydro, and Indigenous groups confirmed that more innovative and flexible approaches will be required to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. The existing Treaty is too narrowly focused, as it only addresses power production and flood control. Improving the balance of benefits from flood control, energy systems management, and ecosystems maintenance or restoration will require innovative approaches to future water storage and release regimes. Adaptive management will be required to address the expected rapidly changing values in commercial uses of water and ecosystem restoration especially as the hydrology of the Columbia changes due to a warming climate.

This will ultimately require a different and more adaptable governance model that includes a new focus on ecosystem-based function. Future decision-makers with oversight of the operating entities must develop adaptation strategies and be flexible as both values and water availability will inevitably change in the future.

The Columbia Basin is one system despite the international border. The basic tenet of the Treaty is the equal sharing of all benefits flowing to both Canada and the U.S. Healthy and more resilient ecosystems make economic sense and meet the aspirations of Indigenous peoples as both the value of water and its availability change. There is a real opportunity in Canada and the U.S. working together on water issues, especially in these troubled times as relations with our southern neighbour are tested around trade and other priorities. Water often brings people and communities together and the Columbia Treaty renegotiation is no different.

By DR Michel

col.riverApril 24, 2018

On April 25, 2018, the Department of State will hold a town hall in Spokane at the Historic Davenport on a topic that will determine the future of our region: modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.

The Columbia River Treaty was originally ratified between the U.S. and Canada in 1964 to reduce the risk of floods in downstream cities like Portland, Oregon, and to develop hydropower capacity. For fifty years, flood control and power generation have been the two major criteria for managing the river.

As special interests push energy and irrigation and U.S. demands versus Canadian demands, it’s important not to lose sight of the Columbia River itself. The official position of the United States will now include the health of the river as a third leg the Columbia River Treaty.

The Columbia River Basin is an abundant watershed that has supported immense forests, the world’s largest salmon runs and diverse and abundant wildlife. The rivers of this system span two countries, six U.S. states, a Canadian province, and 22 indigenous communities. It is a river system essential to all of us.

Decisions we make about how we manage the Columbia River need to take into account all the different uses of the water. Not just power for our homes and businesses, water for our cities, irrigation for our crops and transportation of our grains and goods, but the role it plays in supporting all life in our region. Water is life.

Columbia Basin tribes and many others are advocating for a third major criterion to be included in a modernized Columbia River Treaty: ecosystem-based function. It’s not enough anymore to think only of flood control and power generation. We need to take into account the health of fish, wildlife, habitat, forests and the river itself.

If Canadian and U.S. dams release more water to flow like a natural river, it would help restore healthier flows for salmon, native fish and wildlife. This could be done while still meeting the needs of hydropower and flood control.

In July 2017, Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) and other partners released The Value of Natural Capital in the Columbia River Basin, a report that shows the Columbia River Basin’s natural capital provides $198 billion in value annually. This includes food, water, flood risk reduction, recreation, habitat and other benefits. The report estimates that even a 10 percent increase in ecosystem function would add $19 billion per year to our basin’s value.

One of the biggest benefits of managing for the health of the river is restoring salmon populations. The Columbia River once produced the largest salmon runs on Earth, often exceeding 10 million salmon per year. Today, only a fraction return to spawn.

Salmon fuel a huge industry in the Pacific Northwest. According to The Value of Natural Capital in the Columbia River Basin report, the economic value of Columbia River salmon and steelhead angling is estimated to be $140.9 million. If salmon populations could increase by even 51 percent, it is estimated that the annual existence value benefit of increased salmon runs would be $1.1 billion.

It will hurt our region if we don’t manage the Columbia River watershed in a way that supports the health of salmon. In fact, tribes and First Nations advise that restoring fish passage and reintroducing anadromous fish should be a key element of managing the health of the Columbia River.

Not only are salmon an important economic resource for our region, but tribes and First Nations consider them to be sacred. The loss of salmon harmed our cultures and our people – and, because they are a keystone species, the health of our environment.

For thousands of years, tribes and First Nations have lived in and cared for the Columbia River Basin. These rivers were our life. We believe we were put here to take care of these lands and waterways.

However, tribes weren’t consulted when the Columbia River Treaty was ratified or when the dams were built that blocked our salmon. A modernized treaty is an important step in righting historic wrongs. It is past time tribes and First Nations have a seat at the treaty negotiating table so we can help inform the future of the Columbia River. We must be able to speak for ourselves, as sovereigns.

We all have a responsibility to protect our common home for generations to come. Changing how we manage the Columbia River – on both sides of the border – is important to ensuring we leave our descendants with a healthy home that includes clean water and salmon.

DR Michel is executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.

If all goes according to plan, there could soon be salmon above the Grand Coulee Dam again. That’s according to Cody Desautel, director of Natural Resources for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville. 

“We’re going to trap and haul fish out of our hatchery and put them above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams,” he said. “So there will be salmon above Grand Coulee Dam this year for the first time in 70 years.”

When the Grand Coulee Dam was built between 1933 and 1941, it effectively blocked salmon from traveling to the upper reaches of the Columbia River. But Desautel said that could change early this fall.

“There was a lot of legwork that had to happen beforehand, like risk assessments and feasibility studies and habitat assessments to know if we brought those fish back, would there be any negative repercussions,” Desautel said. “Most of that works is done. All of that work has said it will not, so now is the time.”

Desautel said the plan hangs on one last federal permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For years, the tribes have been looking for a way to return salmon above the dam. Michael Marchand is the Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville.

“When I was younger, I didn’t think I would see those things,” he said.

Marchand said his grandmother once pointed out the spot where his ancestors used to fish.

“One time, they lowered the water to work on the dam. I was just a young child and she said ‘that spot on that rock on this island is our family spot,’ and I was thinking like ‘Why is she telling me this? This dam is going to be here for a thousand years,” he said.

The dam remains, but if the final permit is approved, Colville fish managers will trap salmon at their hatchery and drive them around the dam by truck, where they’ll be released back into the Columbia River. The tribe will keep track of where those fish go.

It’s the next step in a decades-long process to reintroduce a viable salmon population on the river.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network. To see more, visit Northwest News Network.'s note: On Friday, Dec. 8, the United States State Department issued a brief announcement that talks between the U.S. and Canada to modernize the 50+ year old Columbia River Treaty would begin in early 2018. Senator Patty Murray's statement about this announcement is posted below the State Department media note. -jb

Media Note: Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty Regime Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
December 7, 2017 The United States and Canada will begin negotiations to modernize the landmark Columbia River Treaty regime in early 2018. Certain provisions of the Treaty—a model of transboundary natural resource cooperation since 1964—are set to expire in 2024. The Columbia River’s drainage basin is roughly the size of France and includes parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and British Columbia. The Treaty’s flood risk and hydropower operations provide substantial benefits to millions of people on both sides of the border. The Treaty has also facilitated additional benefits such as supporting the river’s ecosystem, irrigation, municipal water use, industrial use, navigation, and recreation. For further information, please email


Friday, December 8th, 2017

Kerry Arndt,, (Press Secretary)
Michael Brewer,, (Deputy Press Secretary)
Press Office: 202-224-2834

Senator Murray’s Statement on Key Announcement on Columbia River Treaty Negotiations

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) released the following statement in response to news that the United States and Canada will begin negotiations in early 2018 to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.

“The Columbia River Treaty is of immense importance to the economy, environment, and culture of Washington state and the Pacific Northwest. It is clear the Columbia River Treaty in its current form needs to be updated to meet the modern-day issues facing the Columbia River Basin, the region, and the nation. The outcome of pending negotiations will have major impacts far into the future for families in my home state and beyond. I welcome the news that the United States and Canada will begin negotiations, and I support these critical talks moving forward in an efficient, constructive manner that benefits every party involved.“

To read more about the Columbia River Treaty, please click here .


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