By Tom Fletcher, Art Harrison, Aaron Orlando
Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, announced Mar. 13 that the province will continue the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) and try to negotiate improvements to the treaty from within its existing framework.
The decision comes with the deadline of September when either side in the agreement can give the required 10-year notice to terminate substantial portions of the treaty or end it entirely in 2024, the 60-year lifespan of the original treaty’s time frame.
The decision to continue with the treaty includes 14 principles intended to guide B.C. in any discussions on the future of the CRT between Canada and the United States.
The announcement comes after a two-year review of the 50-year-old treaty between Canada and the US, with the province of B.C. acting as Canada’s representative and the US Entity made up of the US Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) representing the U.S.
“We believe continuing the Columbia River Treaty while exploring how improvements could benefit both countries is the best strategy moving forward for B.C., Canada, and the United States,” said Bennett in a media release. “The consultations that have included various levels of government, stakeholder groups, First Nations, and the public have helped ensure the future of the treaty will be shaped by the people it impacts.”
Kootenay West MLA, Katrine Conroy, is the NDP’s opposition critic for the Columbia River Treaty but, in this case, she is not being so critical.
“This is a good thing,” said Conroy. “You won’t hear this much in my political career but the minister and I agree on this.
“I think it’s better to work within the treaty and improve upon it. We gave up far more than we gained in the treaty, they gained a huge socioeconomic boost, to their tourism, agriculture, flood control, all this on top of the hydro. It’s pretty amazing what you can do when you have control of the flow.
“This is a good start and we have to be tough in negotiations but I think we’re in a strong position. I’m glad the ministry has let the federal government know the direction they want to go with this and I think the citizens will support it.”
Bennett said the province would try to convince the U.S. government it is a fair deal. B.C. gets “downstream benefits” worth between $100 and $300 million a year from the treaty, and the U.S. has suggested that is too much.
“We believe, with all due respect to the U.S., that if all of the benefits in the U.S. are identified and valued, that in fact Canada probably does not receive enough,” Bennett said Thursday.
“There hasn’t been a major flood in the U.S. since the Canadian dams were constructed,” Bennett said. “Before the Canadian dams were constructed, there were some horrible floods causing loss of life and billions of dollars of damage. So the treaty was negotiated 50 years ago on the basis of producing power and controlling floods.”
The review process included numerous community consultation sessions held throughout the Columbia Basin to discuss the impacts of the original treaty and what the people of the region wanted to see addressed in any new discussions on the cross-border agreement.
“The first thing we noticed during the community consultations was the deep sorrow felt in many communities at the losses the region incurred,” said Deb Kozak, local government committee chair for the review. “But the people of this region are pragmatic and resilient and they wanted to talk about how to make things better.
“When this treaty was struck 50 years ago it was a different time and there were no provisions for the ecology of the river system. People have expressed concerns about possible impacts of climate change and the industrial reservoirs with the dramatic raising and lowering of water levels that impact fish and wildlife and erosion. These things need to be acknowledged and addressed.”
While the U.S. side of the treaty has yet to formally declare whether or not it is interested in continuing with the treaty, the US Entity released its recommendations for the future of the CRT last December.
Although the document clearly states that it feels the financial compensation returned to B.C. through the downstream benefits of the agreement are far too high and need to be addressed, many of the stated principles in the document are relatively closely aligned with the principles put forward by B.C.
“The U.S. relies heavily on a managed system,” said Kozak. “There’s a big advantage to continuing the discussion and looking for improvements. When this treaty was struck is was a highly unusual occurrence, since then it has been used as a model for cross-border agreements. It has served Canada and the U.S. very well.”
Officials at the Portland-based Bonneville Power Administration have recommended a “modernized framework that balances power production, flood risk management, and ecosystem-based function as the primary purposes addressed in the treaty, while also meeting other congressionally authorized purposes of the U.S. project, such as irrigation and navigation.”
On the B.C. side, dams on the Columbia system provide about half of the province’s current electricity supply.
Bennett said he expects tough negotiations, but he is confident the treaty can be settled.
“Yankee trader is an expression that I’m familiar with,” Bennett said. “They’ve always done very well on the softwood agreement it seems to me, so I’m not expecting an easy ride or anything. But the history of the treaty is that the two countries have collaborated very well.”
In their media release on the decision, the B.C. government emphasized they won’t put the reintroduction of migrating salmon into the Canadian Columbia on the agenda – a recommendation made by the Canadian local government committee review panel. It was also a regional recommendation of the U.S. Entity.
In a media release, the B.C. Government states: “Salmon migration on the Columbia River was eliminated by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, 26 years prior to treaty ratification and concludes that the restoration of fish passage and habitat should be the responsibility of each country.” It’s one the 14 recommendations. The B.C. government has maintained this position since their draft position was made public in 2013.
U.S. and Canadian Tribal and First Nations entities are pushing salmon reintroduction as a key issue in the CRT process, including calls to fund costly dam bypass projects and programs.
The B.C. Decision also calls for exploration of “ecosystem based improvements” using mechanisms “inside and outside the Treaty.” The U.S. Entity’s position eleveated ecosystem-based improvements as a proposed major new pillar of the agreement.
For more on the 14 conditions, see this B.C. government’s ‘Columbia River Treaty Review B.C. Decision.‘