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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Save Our wild Salmon co-leads the United States Treaty Caucus – an alliance of eight Northwest-based civic, faith and conservation organizations working closely with Columbia Basin Native American Tribes and allies in British Columbia to modernize the 50 year-old U.S. – Canada Columbia River Treaty in order to help sustain and restore the health of this bi-national river system, its tribal and non-tribal communities and its wild salmon and other fish and wildlife resources.

Since 1964, the Columbia River Treaty has played a significant role in the management of the Columbia River and its waters. A devastating flood in Vanport Oregon in 1948 was the catalyst for discussions between the Canadian and the United States governments to craft an agreement 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: coordinated power production and flood management. A creature of its time, the Treaty never considered coordinated management of the health of the river, its fish and wildlife populations, or its many human communities. Native American Tribes (in the U.S) and First Nations (in Canada) who have lived in the Basin near the river with its fish and wildlife since time immemorial were never consulted during Treaty negotiations in the 1950s and ‘60s and have played no role in the process of implementation. The body responsible for managing the Treaty in the U.S. is called the Entity, made up of two federal dam agencies: Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers.

New tools to fight climate change and address it impacts

Fortunately, we now have an opportunity to address these significant shortcomings. In 2014, per its original language, the Treaty “opened” for possible renegotiation. After several years of discussion and meetings, regional interests in the Northwest that include the Entity, Tribes, states, stakeholders (including non-governmental organizations) worked together to develop a consensus document outlining a series of changes we agree are necessary in order to modernize the Treaty to better meet the needs of communities and the challenges we face in the 21st Century including climate change and species extinction.

The development of the Regional Recommendation – the Northwest’s consensus document – was a critical step on the path toward a new round of Treaty negotiations. As of October 2017, talks between Canada and the United States have not yet begun, but preparations on both sides of the border are close to complete.

An opportunity to right historic wrongs

Though some interests in the region are focusing on other elements of the Regional Recommendation, SOS and its allies in the U.S. Caucus are working closely with Tribes and others to ensure that these negotiations lead to a modernized Treaty that includes a new third co-equal purpose of ecosystem-based function or health of the river. The Treaty’s too-narrow focus over the last 50 years – power and flood management – has harmed the Basin’s fish and wildlife populations and its Tribal and non-tribal communities. A modernized Treaty must address these critical shortcomings and right this historic wrong.

We also face new challenges today that were unimaginable in the middle of last century. Climate change is here - already 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. A modernized Treaty with a new co-equal purpose of ecosystem-based function will enable the two countries and their people to work together to adapt river operations, management regimes and regional energy conservation and production strategies to increase resilience for the river, the watershed and its communities.

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