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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

col.gorgeSunday, August 9, 2015

By Becky Kramer

NAKUSP, British Columba – Crystal and Janet Spicer grew up in a white-frame farmhouse on 60 fertile acres along the Columbia River in Canada. Their dad was a local legend for the asparagus and other row crops he produced from the rich, loamy soil.

After surviving the aerial gunfights of World War II, Christopher Spicer – a veteran of Britian’s Royal Air Force – immigrated to British Columbia in search of a quiet life on a farm. At Nakusp, he found land he liked, along with a woman who shared his love for growing things. They settled down to raise twin girls.

But bigger forces were at work, which would disrupt the Spicers and hundreds of other Canadian families living along the river.

Chris Spicer’s farm was flooded by Hugh Keenleyside Dam, one of three massive storage reservoirs built in Canada as a result of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty. Half a century later, the dams still incite resentment in some B.C. residents, who felt their government sold out to downstream U.S. interests in Washington and Oregon. As the two nations prepare to renegotiate the treaty, they want changes in how the dams operate.

Most Northwest residents have never heard of the treaty dams, but they benefit daily from their presence.

The reservoirs behind Hugh Keenleyside, Duncan and Mica dams store 15.5 million acre feet of water, enough to refill Lake Coeur d’Alene seven times.

During drought years – like this one – Canada releases water from the reservoirs to help keep turbines turning at U.S. dams downstream and to provide river flows for migrating salmon and steelhead.

When Northwest electricity use shoots up during the winter months, water from Canada boosts hydropower generation in the U.S. When Portland and other cities are threatened by flooding, Canada holds back water behind the dams.

Both countries have benefited from the treaty, which coordinates flows along the 1,270-mile river.

Building reservoirs in Canada increased downstream electric generation by about 1,000 megawatts, nearly enough to power a city the size of Seattle. Canada gets an annual payment of about $250 million for that electricity.

But residents of Nakusp and other B.C. communities have never forgotten they were part of a “sacrifice zone,” with their lands flooded to provide benefits to faraway urban areas, mostly in the U.S.

The dams were built over the span of a decade in the 1960s and ’70s, creating social upheaval still felt today, said Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, a Nelson, B.C., resident and author of a forthcoming book, “A River Captured,” about the Columbia River Treaty.

“I don’t think Americans have any idea what the cost was to this region. Many Canadians have no idea, either,” Pearkes said. “It happened so fast that it left a deep scar.”

Nakusp, a picturesque town about five hours north of Spokane, is located on the 150-mile long reservoir behind Hugh Keenleyside Dam.

At the edge of town, the Columbia rises and falls as much as 70 feet – about the height of a nine-story building. In early spring, the river is drawn down to make room for later runoff, exposing mudflats that dry out and blanket the town with choking dust storms.

The city’s swimming beach is high and dry this summer because of water releases to augment flows on the Lower Columbia. The reservoir is 20 feet lower than normal for this time of year, and it’s scheduled to drop another 15 feet in August.

“It’s major for us. We’re living with the impacts every day,” said Karen Hamling, Nakusp’s mayor.

She and others are pushing for less extreme fluctuations in water levels.

The B.C. government has commissioned a study on operating Canadian reservoirs at more stable levels, which will be out later this year. If Canada moves that direction, there would be downstream effects.

Big fluctuations in water levels behind B.C. dams allow U.S. reservoirs to operate at more constant levels, Pearkes said. One example is Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam. Despite the drought, water levels are within three feet of full pool this summer.

For Crystal and Janet Spicer, the reservoir issue is deeply personal. Hugh Keenleyside Dam was named for a Canadian diplomat who became a co-chairman of BC Hydro, the government corporation that built and operates the treaty dams.

The sisters remember the day Keenleyside stood in their yard, shouting at their dad. Chris Spicer had organized a group of farmers opposed to the dam’s construction. Two proud, unyielding men faced off that day.

“Hugh Keenleyside said Dad should be grateful to BC Hydro for taking his family away from this decrepit farmhouse,” Crystal Spicer said.

Shortly afterward, Chris Spicer had the first of two major heart attacks. His family attributed them to stress.

“It truly touched his soul,” Janet Spicer said. “When you’re a farmer, you live the land in every way. Then you see the water coming in and covering everything you love.

A dam-builder’s dream

The Columbia River gets its start in British Columbia’s snowy interior. Canada’s portion of the watershed is a dam-builder’s dream, with narrow valleys bordered by steep mountains.

When U.S. engineers started looking for places to build additional storage reservoirs in the 1940s, they quickly realized the best spots were north of the border. British Columbia was an eager ally in the effort.

Both governments had their eye on the kilowatts to be gained from damming the river in Canada and strategically running that water through downstream hydropower plants. Preventing floods was also a consideration.

In 1948, the Columbia experienced its second-highest flows on record, with a million cubic feet of water roaring down the river. The floods caused millions of dollars in damage from Trail, B.C., to Portland. More than 50 people were killed, and 30,000 lost their homes. The city of Vanport, Oregon, an African-American community north of downtown Portland, was destroyed when a dike broke and the Columbia flooded the low-lying city.

For the Spicer family, 1948 was a landmark year as well. Chris Spicer and his wife, Jean, bought an old dairy farm in Nakusp. They set out to make it an agricultural showpiece.

In Jean, Spicer had found his soulmate – she’d graduated from the University of British Columbia with a botany degree. While he cultivated fields, she planted flower bulbs along the irrigation ditches for beauty.

Spicer embraced a vegetarian diet and tilled his farm by hand. Photographs depict a wiry man with prominent cheekbones: He topped 6 feet but seldom weighed more than 130 pounds. From watermelons to peanuts to zucchini, the Spicer farm grew a variety of fruits and vegetables. The produce was shipped to market by truck and boat.

“It fed from here to Nelson,” Crystal Spicer said of the farm. “We didn’t need California. People ate what Dad grew.”

Chris Spicer’s dream of the perfect farm lasted about a dozen years, his daughters said. The U.S. ratified the Columbia River Treaty in 1961, and Canada’s approval came three years later. The construction of Hugh Keenleyside Dam started soon afterwards.

When the reservoir filled in 1969, it flooded the farm’s best fields. Additional acreage was condemned for a highway relocation. After five years of arbitration, Spicer accepted a settlement. He and Jean were allowed to stay in their farmhouse, but it was to be burned when he died.

About 2,300 Canadians were displaced by the construction of the three treaty dams and Libby Dam in Montana, which was also built as the result of the treaty. It’s reservoir extends 42 miles into Canada.

The treaty wasn’t a shoo-in in Canada, said Pearkes, the author. Opponents questioned whether the Canadian government bargained hard enough on payments for flood control and electricity. Families living on the river lobbied against it.


On a crisp day in March, Charlie Maxfield walked the along the mudflats south of Nakusp, remembering places that were flooded when the reservoir behind Hugh Keenleyside Dam filled.

Maxfield’s dad was a country doctor who made house calls in the communities up and down the river. As a youngster, Maxfield often accompanied him to the small farms, orchards and woodlots. Through the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual to see a bunch of barefoot kids scamper out of the house, the girls in flour-sack dresses.

“Doc, I can’t pay you, but I just butchered a cow,” Maxfield recalls farmers telling his dad. “When we unpacked the trunk, there would be half a sack of potatoes, a box of apples, and maybe a fish or two wrapped up in oil cloth.”

It galls him to see sterile mudflats in place of productive land.

“The Americans have access to a lot of the downstream benefits from the Canadian dams,” he said. “We’re basically holding tanks.”

“Federal bureaucrats went into high gear,” Pearkes said. Part of their strategy was to portray local residents as backwoods hicks.

“People here were compared to people in Appalachia or the Ozarks,” said Charlie Maxfield, 71, a retired logging contractor who grew up in Nakusp. “They realized it wouldn’t be a big deal to move people, to take their properties. There weren’t a lot of people here to bitch about what they were doing.”

While some families were glad to accept buyouts, others remain bitter about how the B.C. government treated them. Payments for the condemned land were low and government negotiators were high-handed.

The people most affected by the dams’ construction weren’t consulted, said Kathy Eichenberger, executive director for B.C.’s treaty review team. But that wasn’t unusual for the 1950s and ’60s, when governments were pushing for rapid industrialization and modernization.

“It was a different era,” Eichenberger said. “It wasn’t the norm to consult communities. Had this vision been developed today, the process would be much different.”

The treaty transformed the province. It kicked off a period of rapid dam-building in British Columbia, which gets about 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower.


Brian Gadbois, 63, grew up at Revelstoke, a Columbia River town north of Nakusp. When part of his family’s 10 acres was condemned, his parents received $20 per acre. “My dad went with the flow. We didn’t have a lot of money to hire lawyers to negotiate a better deal,” Gadbois said.Some of their neighbors were Ukrainian immigrants. They were devastated.

“People had heart attacks. The men just couldn’t cope,” Gadbois said. “Ten acres was security. It meant you could grow enough food to feed your family.”

Gadbois later went to work for BC Hydro as a biologist. With a scientist’s trained eye, he assess changes to the upper Columbia River – the loss of productive wildlife habitat in valley bottoms, and the creeks that no longer provide spawning for fish because water levels are too high at the wrong times. But Gadbois can’t imagine a different outcome.

“We have steep mountains, big snowpacks and lots of runoff. It’s idea for power production,” Gadbois said. “If it didn’t happen, where would we get our electricity? We’d be running huge coal plants.”

A renewal of the river

Two years ago, the B.C. government held meetings about the future Columbia River Treaty. About 1,200 people attended the meetings.

“This time, people managed to get their two bits in,” said Hamling, the Nakusp mayor.

Surveys indicate that the majority of B.C. residents want the treaty to continue. But there’s the push from communities along the river for more stable reservoir levels. Most of the focus has been on the Arrow reservoir behind Hugh Keenleyside Dam.

A consultant is modeling scenarios for keeping water levels in the reservoir more constant, while accommodating high spring flows and providing for some flood control. Depending on the modeling results, reservoir levels could become an issue for negotiation with the U.S., Eichenberger said.

“It’s not as straightforward as people think,” cautioned Eichenberger, who is a hydraulic engineer. “You’re not looking at a single reservoir; you’re looking at an entire system. We have to study the upstream and downstream impacts.

But, “we’ve heard from residents and First Nations that the benefits are certainly worthy of investigation,” she said.

Crystal and Janet Spicer are advocates. A more natural-flowing Columbia would be the best possible way to honor their dad, the sisters said.

Before he died in 1998, Chris Spicer was able to overturn the burn order on the farmhouse. Janet Spicer, an organic farmer, grows some of her crops on the remnant of the Spicer farm.

A fishing lure, snagged on a tree limb near the farmhouse, is a reminder that the Columbia rises and falls based on Americans’ needs.

“What we’d like to see in our lifetime is a moderation of the draft,” Crystal Spicer said. “We’d like to see a renewal of the river.”

This story was updated to correct the spelling of Brian Gadbois’ name.

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