The Columbia River Treaty was up for discussion again November 29

Columbia River Treaty discussions return to Nakusp

The issues surrounding the Columbia River Treaty are complex. Now may be best opportunity to resolve old grievances and plan for the future.

Rather than describing the food at the Columbia Basin Trust meeting on November 29 (there were platters of  desserts and veggies with a creamy garlic dip, if you’re curious) I’m going to focus on the interesting bits from a newcomer’s perspective. If you’ve lived here all your life you may want to just skip to the middle part after I’ve described this stunningly beautiful valley that we live in, its river system and the Columbia River Treaty… on the other hand, don’t you love to read about the unmatched natural beauty and wonder of this place we live in? Read on!

The Columbia River System is important for more than its electricity generating capacity; it is unique in its ecological, cultural and historical aspects. There is archaeological evidence of people in the Columbia basin as early as 10,000 BC. The river provides for and nurtures various wildlife, plants and, well let’s be honest, probably a bunch of hippies too. It was an important site for First Nations people, on both sides of the border, long before Europeans came to North America. It was part of their daily activities, seasonal trading habits, and generations-long traditions. The Columbia provided early residents of this continent food, water and spiritual mysticism all-in-one.

Before the dam building began on the Columbia in the U.S.A. sometime in the 1930s and 1940s there were salmon in the Columbia River,  1941 is frequently repeated as the year the salmon were no longer found in the Columbia River. As most folks know, environmental concern and consideration is a more modern movement beginning somewhere around 1962 when Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. Fish, wildlife, First Nations persons and land owners rights (where the land would be flooded) were not major factors under consideration when the Treaty was signed and the majority of the Columbia River dams were constructed.

Luckily the world has changed and continues to change. First Nations groups, as well as others, would like to see the salmon return to the magical Columbia River and it seems, with recent developments in modern technology and knowledge, that this may now be technically feasible. Displaced residents and their descendants would like to see an apology for the disturbing treatment they received in the process and perhaps for the often insufficient compensation they received for their land.

The Columbia river spans 2,000 km, extends into seven U.S. states and has a drainage basin about the size of France. It is the fourth largest river by volume in North America. And, according to Wikipedia, the Columbia River system contributes a third of the United States’ total hydroelectric potential. Presenters from BC Hydro at the meeting noted that the Columbia River Dams produce around 44 per cent of the power for the province of B.C.

While the Columbia River originates in B.C. at Columbia Lake and the Columbia River wetlands and, depending on the source, 20-40 per cent of the water flows from Canada, only about 15 per cent of the Columbia River basin is actually located here in Canada. The remaining 85 per cent of the basin is located in the northwestern U.S., eventually draining into the Pacific Ocean at Portland, Oregon. The river crosses the border into the U.S. about 1,200 km inland from the Pacific Ocean. In total the Columbia river basin covers three degrees of latitude and nine degrees of longitude. It’s big!

BC Hydro in Canada controls or stores the water that helps maximize power generation in the U.S. In return we are paid 50 per cent of the increased potential power that can be generated as a result of our water storage actions. Now 50 years later, the Columbia River basin well under our control, 12 years before the agreement ends and less than two years before a decision must be made, it is time to consider our options.

This is the second time the Columbia River Treaty Review team has come to Nakusp to consult with residents, they were also here last May. Additionally the Columbia Basin Trust held a public meeting and dinner last November 2011 to provide information to prepare residents for the review process that is now taking place. Thus far the consultation process has shown that local residents are curious, often well-informed, and interested to be part of the process. Kathy Eichenberger even noted at the beginning of the meeting that the team was anxious about their visit to Nakusp “we were a little nervous because people here are very knowledgeable.” She also noted their purpose here in town was to “ask for your advice on what you would like to see as the future of the treaty.” And “we’re looking at choices here.”

Most local concerns presented at the meeting were what one would expect, everything from future uncertainties about how the world will change to the distribution of benefits for our area. For example: How will water levels be affected with global climate change? Why doesn’t our area get more money from the CBT? Other concerns were raised about educating the next generation of local negotiators. People were concerned about recreation, transportation  and the mythically promised in 1965 fixed link was brought up numerous times, as well as how the Americans are conducting this process and dealing with their local residents concerns.

Kathy Eichenberger, her team and representatives presented some basic information, above, regarding the Treaty and an overview of the benefits and impacts. Their report on the impacts and benefits of the treaty for our area can be found on the website noted above. Benefits included jobs at the dams, payments for our water storage services, the reservoirs to use as recreational lakes, and low carbon energy generation for almost half of the province.

While impacts include all of the environmental and biophysical consequences as well as the social impacts of how the local residents were treated in order to fulfil the requirements of the treaty, loss of agricultural land, loss of archeological sites and the lost tax base for land that is now under water.

Following the presentation of the benefits and impacts of the treaty two analysts from BC Hydro presented their model for the electricity generating and financial impacts of various scenarios suggested by local residents in the previous consultation session. For example the model could provide an estimate of the lost energy generating capacity if BC Hydro chose to keep the Arrow Lakes at a particular water level throughout the summer season.

Keeping the water levels stable at one level could only be done if Canada opted out of the Columbia River Treaty, otherwise BC Hydro would not be meeting their commitments to the U.S. for water storage services under the agreement. But if B.C. chooses to opt out of the agreement, we forgo the yearly hundred million dollar payments.

Following this presentation the attendees split into smaller groups to discuss with one of the review team members what they would like to come out of this process. All of the suggestions were recorded and a summary report will be made available online.

The issues surrounding the Columbia River Treaty are complex and intricate. There is no easy decision but now may be best opportunity to resolve old grievances as well as to plan for the future. As Kathy noted several times by saying “the government is paying attention now “ and “the door has been opened a crack, take advantage of it,” this is our opportunity to have our voice heard. If you would like to be heard on this matter attend the next session expected in the spring 2013 or post your comments on the appropriate blog on the government Columbia River Treaty Review website.