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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

By Pat Ford

neil.littleredfish1Save Our wild Salmon is helping coordinate conservation and fishing organizations to help modernize the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty of 1964 for today’s Northwest. This report will summarize why, and one to follow will summarize how.

Our work on the Treaty has both immediate and long-term payoff. It’s long-term since, under the Treaty’s 50-year-old terms, some changes needed to modernize it will not take legal effect until 2024. But it’s immediate because climate change is not waiting on a 50-year-old schedule to do its damage to Columbia Basin waters, salmon and people, so neither can our two nations and peoples wait. The sooner Canada and the U.S. agree on a new Treaty, ideally 2015, the sooner we can implement vital changes even if implementing others waits till 2024.

Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty for Northwest and British Columbia watersheds and communities now under the gun of climate change primarily means four changes:

  •  “ecosystem function” must become a third purpose of the Treaty, joining the current purposes of power production and flood management.
  • a representative for ecosystem function must join the agencies that today manage the Treaty for the U.S., the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This could be the Department of Interior, or the 15 Columbia Basin Indian Tribes acting as one. This need not wait till 2024; it can happen now by executive order.
  • a U.S.-Canada program to re-establish salmon above now-impassable dams should begin as one step to healthier ecosystem function during climate change. A phased, science-based, affordable program will occur over decades, but planning and some implementation can start now.
  • The Army Corps and Northwest must modernize flood management to protect against floods while also protecting ecosystems – for example, by reconnecting floodplains and providing healthier river flows. This will require a regional public process that the Army Corps can start now.

These changes have made sense for years, but now climate change demands them. Our rivers are changing: waters heating, snowpacks thinning, flow patterns shifting, and river uses starting to bend under these pressures. By 2025, the changes will be larger and more intense. Canada and the U.S., British Columbia and the Northwest, need a formal framework to encourage and enable our two nations, regions and peoples to work together now to weather these changes. The sooner we build it the better.

Some (not all) Northwest utilities oppose making ecosystem function a Treaty purpose. We think this overlooks that in today’s Northwest, ecosystem function IS economic function. Our needs for power production and flood management will be improved with ecosystem function as the Treaty’s third leg. So will water supply and all river-based uses, of course including salmon. All economic activities based on or in the Columbia and Snake Rivers are hurt by the hotter and sicker waters climate change is creating, and all will benefit by creative bilateral responses. SOS is focused on the urgent value for salmon, but the urgent value for people who use the Columbia and Snake in any way also matters. A modernized Treaty is good for every use and user of the Columbia and Snake.

Pat Ford stepped down as SOS’ executive director August 31, but remains SOS’ representative for the Columbia River Treaty.

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