Slide background

Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Save Our wild Salmon co-leads the U.S. NGO Treaty Caucus – an alliance of Northwest-based civic, faith, energy and conservation organizations working for a modernized Columbia River Treaty that will better serve our region’s diverse needs now and into the future. The Caucus aims to sustain and restore the health and resilience of this international river system, support tribal and non-tribal communities, and recover its wild salmon and other fish and wildlife resources. Core members include Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power and Light, League of Women Voters of Washington, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northwest Energy Coalition, Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, Sierra Club, and WaterWatch of Oregon.

Read more about the current work by the U.S. NGO Treaty Caucus and how you can take action at

Since its ratification in 1964, the Columbia River Treaty has played a significant role in the management of the Columbia River and some of its tributaries. In 1948, high spring runoff devastated the city of Vanport, Oregon, which was built hastily in the floodplain with insufficient infrastructure. Following this tragic but foreseeable event, much discussion focused on the need to “tame” the Columbia and it became the catalyst for Canada and the U.S. to craft an agreement intended to jointly manage the river for “the mutual benefit of both nations.”

Unfortunately for the river and many Basin communities, both in terms of process and substance, the Treaty’s language and its implementation have been damagingly narrow in scope. The original Treaty had – and still has today – just two purposes: maximized power production and engineered flood risk management. A creature of its time, the Treaty never considered coordinated management for the health of the river, its fish and wildlife populations, or its many human communities. Native American Tribes (in the U.S) and Indigenous Nations (in Canada) who have lived in the Basin and cared for its river ecosystems since time immemorial were never consulted during Treaty negotiations in the 1950s and ‘60s or its subsequent implementation. The two bodies responsible today for implementing the Treaty are called the “Entities”. The U.S. Entity is made up of two federal dam agencies: Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers. Similarly, the Canadian Entity is BC Hydro — a provincial hydropower corporation.

The Northwest’s consensus: Ecosystem Function be added as new, co-equal treaty purpose

Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to address these significant shortcomings. In anticipation of changes to the flood risk management provisions of the Treaty that will take effect in 2024, the U.S. and Canada began reviewing the Treaty for potential modernization in 2014. Over the course of several years of discussion and meetings, regional interests in the Northwest including the U.S. Entity, Columbia Basin tribes, states and stakeholders (including non-governmental organizations) worked together to develop a consensus document. Known as the “Regional Recommendation”, it outlines a series of changes we agree are necessary for the Treaty to better meet the needs of the region as a whole and address future challenges such as climate change, endangered species, and shifting power markets. This consensus document serves as the guiding blueprint for the U.S. negotiators to ensure they do not lose sight of regional priorities as they work towards an agreement with Canada. The Regional Recommendation is built on nine general principles, which include that the new treaty must work to improve Ecosystem Function in addition to coordinating hydropower generation and flood risk management.

Formal negotiations between Canada and the United States began in May 2018 and are ongoing. Once negotiators reach an agreement, the revised Treaty will move into an implementation phase. The Regional Recommendation states that the composition of the U.S. Entity should be reviewed to ensure “it is best suited to effectively and efficiently implement the [revised] Treaty.” The existing members of the Entity, Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, do not have the mandate or expertise needed to implement Ecosystem Function as a third Treaty purpose. As a result, it is essential that additional member(s) suited to this task are added to the Entity.

An opportunity to right historic wrongs and involve and educate the public

Despite the tribes’ deep involvement in the Treaty review process and their expertise as stewards of the watershed since time immemorial, the State Department (which leads the negotiation) has chosen to exclude them from the U.S. negotiating team. Negotiators have requested that tribes present on specific topics and have consulted with them before and after negotiating sessions, but these limited steps are inadequate given their status as sovereign nations. In contrast, citing its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples for historic and ongoing wrongs, Canada has granted official observer status to First Nations in its portion of the Basin and is greatly benefiting from their expertise in ecosystem and other matters related to the Treaty.

Treaty negotiations necessarily take place behind closed doors to protect confidentiality during the process. However, the State Department has made a series of choices that further distance the process from our region’s public. Since negotiations began, they have limited their public engagement to a series of quarterly 90-minute “Town Hall” meetings. These Town Halls have each been announced with only a couple weeks notice and include little genuine dialog between negotiators and attendees. The last town hall was over 2.5 years ago in December 2019. In contrast, responding to its history of ignoring local voices during the original 1960’s Treaty negotiations, Canada has held dozens of public sessions. They have typically been 3 hours long and have included significant open-ending dialog and facilitated brainstorming with multiple expert presenters. This disparity is even more significant because only about 155,000 people live in the Canadian side of the Basin compared with over 5 million on the U.S. side. The Northwest deserves more interaction with the officials that are shaping its future.

NGOs advocating for the changes needed to meet future challenges

Some interests in the region are focusing overwhelmingly on securing low prices from Canada for services relating to the original two purposes of the Treaty (hydropower and flood control). However, SOS and its allies in the U.S. Caucus are working closely with Tribes and others to ensure that these negotiations also lead to a modernized Treaty that includes a new third co-equal purpose of Ecosystem Function. While the Treaty has certainly provided some economic benefits over the last 55+ years, its too-narrow focus has severely harmed the Basin’s fish and wildlife populations and many indigenous and non-indigenous communities. A modernized Treaty must address these critical shortcomings and right these historic wrongs.

We also face new challenges today that were unimaginable in the middle of last century. Climate change is already here - disrupting energy systems and significantly impacting the ecological health of the Columbia River and her tributaries: raising temperatures, shifting seasonal flows, increasing the incidence of and susceptibility of its fish populations to disease and predators. At the same time, Indigenous Nations and the governments of Canada and British Columbia have committed to work towards restoring salmon to the Upper Columbia Basin past Chief Joseph, Grand Coulee, and other dams that currently block their migration. Parallel efforts led by tribes in the U.S. are also gaining traction. As efforts to advance these initiatives through scientific review and bureaucratic approval continue, tribes have already held symbolic ‘cultural releases’ of salmon into areas where they have not swam in over 80 years.

Helping these fish return home to their ancestral spawning grounds will give them access to portions of the watershed projected to strongly resist the deadly warming impacts of climate change. While salmon restoration need not necessarily proceed through the Columbia River Treaty framework, a modernized Treaty that manages river flows to support the long-term health of fish populations will be crucial. In addition to the climatic rationale, twelve varied perspectives on the social, cultural, spiritual and ecological benefits of salmon restoration can be found alongside images of the river from source-to-sea in photographer Peter Marbach’s book “Healing the Big River: Salmon Dreams and the Columbia River Treaty”.

A modernized Treaty with a new co-equal purpose of Ecosystem Function and appropriate Entity membership to implement this expanded mission will enable the two countries and their people to work together to adapt dam operations and regional energy conservation and production strategies to increase resilience for the river, the watershed and all of its communities.

Read more about the current work by the U.S. NGO Treaty Caucus and how you can take action at

Share This