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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Columbia River GorgeFriday, February 12, 2016

A cross-border coalition from a broad group of 51 organization and associations are urging the U.S. and Canadian governments to modernize the 52-year old U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty in order to protect the environmental values of the river.

The groups sent a letter this week to policymakers from the United States and the Canadian province of British Columbia urging them to develop and share critical information as an essential step in protecting and restoring the Columbia River and its watershed as they negotiate the treaty.

“As citizen-based coalitions in Canada and the United States, we are writing on behalf of organizations in both countries that collectively represent millions of people,” the letter says.

The letter was signed by Martin Carver of Nelson, British Columbia, Principal, Aqua Environmental Assoc. and by Joseph Bogaard, Executive Director of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in the U.S.

“We support modernizing the 1964 U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty, to improve the health of basin ecosystems and ensure that the river and its people are more resilient to the increasing effects of climate change,” the letter continues.

Other signers include leaders from conservation, commercial and recreational fishing, and faith communities. The letter is addressed to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion; United States Secretary of State John Kerry; and British Columbia’s Premier Christy Clark.

A copy of the letter can be downloaded here.

“Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty to meet the challenges of the 21st Century must focus on protecting and restoring the health of this important river and its watershed,” Carver said.

According to the coalition’s news release, Carver is among the non-governmental leaders in Canada working with those in the United States to broaden the Treaty’s current scope to include a new purpose that prioritizes the protection and restoration of the Columbia River.

The scope of the original Treaty of 1964 was limited to just two purposes, the coalition says – coordinated power production and flood management – and that the upcoming negotiations between the U.S. and Canada provide an opportunity to elevate the ecological needs of the river and address the mounting impacts of climate change.

“The organizations signing this letter represent millions of people who understand that the health of the Columbia River and the interests of communities in both nations will be best served by Treaty negotiations based on collaboration rather than competition,” Bogaard said. “Though the Columbia River might span two countries, it is one river within its own watershed. Our two nations need to work together to manage and protect it as a single system.”

The letter offers two recommendations:

1. adding “ecosystem-based function” as a third Treaty purpose

2. developing a “common U.S.-Canada analytic base to explore and assess
operational scenarios and watershed futures across the whole Columbia

Restoring ecosystem-based functions could include such measures as restoration of wetlands, riparian areas and floodplains; approximation of natural hydrographs; reduced impacts of reservoir and dam operations on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; fish passage and reintroduction of anadromous species; and adaptive management to continuously improve ecosystem functions, the letter says.

The common analytic base would “provide a framework for understanding the potential for improvement of ecosystem function, and also to adequately assess tradeoffs and synergies between all water uses in the basin (ecosystems, power production, flood control, irrigation, domestic, navigation, etc.).”

The 1,242 mile-long (2,000 km) Columbia River originates in the Canadian province of British Columbia before flowing south into Washington State. It forms the border between Washington and Oregon before it flows into the ocean between the two states. It has been heavily dammed primarily for power, water storage and flood management.

“The health of the Columbia River’s ecosystem was compromised from over- development in the last century and now climate change in this one,” said Greg Haller, conservation director for Pacific Rivers in Portland. “A modernized Treaty must protect and restore the health of the river, its fish and wildlife and help ensure that its communities are more resilient to the intensifying effects of climate change.”

“The Canadian portion of the river was heavily impacted by the construction of dams pursuant to the 1964 Treaty” said Bob Peart, executive director of the Sierra Club of BC.  “Treaty modernization offers the best chance for restoring some of the ecological values and environmental services that were lost when the dams were built and that continue to be impacted on a daily basis. The health of the river will benefit if both nations work together towards mutual environmental goals.”

The Treaty was first established by the United States and Canada in 1964 to coordinate power production and flood management on the Columbia River. Important provisions of the Treaty are set to expire in 2024 and a window to update or modernize the Treaty opened in September 2014, according to the coalition.

As it approaches the Treaty negotiations with British Columbia, the U.S. State Department in June 2015 said it would include ecosystem-based functions, along with power production and flood control, in the talks.

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