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Province hopes to reduce Kinbasket drawdown through negotiations with U.S.

Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty
Kinbasket reservoir drawdown zone on the Columbia River. (Brian Gustafson photo)

For the past six years, negotiating committees from Canada and the U.S. have been locked in the process of modernizing the Columbia River Treaty, which sets guidelines for the use of hydroelectric power and flood control from the river.

The Treaty governs BC Hydro’s use of the Kinbasket Reservoir, and a modernized treaty may dictate how much drawdown – that is, reduced water levels – Hydro can cause in the Kinbasket, sources say.

Village councillor Donnie MacLean sits on the Local Government Committee for the Columbia River Treaty, and told The Goat about the Treaty’s local impacts.

BC Hydro’s use of the Kinbasket reservoir results in drawdown of water levels, which in turn may contribute to airborne dust and loss of land in the area, MacLean told The Goat.

These conditions can make the Kinbasket ecosystem less habitable for native animals, and mean a loss in recreational opportunities near Valemount, impacting the local economy.

MacLean’s concerns are shared by other Columbia Basin communities. In 2021, the Local Government Committee outlined these concerns in a letter to the treaty negotiators.

The committee recommended that negotiators provide more research on the impacts of the Treaty on basin communities, work towards having less fluctuation in water levels due to drawdown, and include ecosystem function as a priority in the Treaty.

Provincial officials, the Canadian Columbia River Treaty team and BC Hydro held an information session about the Arrow Lakes Reservoir in March which discussed the treaty negotiations.

While details of those negotiations are confidential, the treaty team confirmed that the U.S. and Canada are considering ways to manage water volumes.

In an email to The Goat, Kathy Eichenberger, executive director, Columbia River Treaty and B.C. Lead of the Canadian negotiating delegation, expanded on how local concerns are being accounted for during Treaty negotiations.

“The B.C. government’s Columbia River Treaty team communicates regularly with the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee to make sure Canadian negotiators are up to date on Basin community issues and concerns,” Eichenberger wrote.

“The Province is aware of the Treaty’s impacts on Kinbasket, Arrow Lakes and Duncan Reservoirs and is committed to seeking improvements through ongoing negotiations with the U.S. to modernize the Treaty.”

The province has also been engaging with local communities by posting updates on the treaty website, Facebook and Twitter feeds, along with updating regular releases about the treaty and the negotiations.

When discussions are nearing their end, the province will engage basin communities to provide information on the proposals in the treaty and receive feedback before negotiations are finalized, according to Eichenberger.

While specifics on the current state of negotiations are confidential, Eichenberger said the Canadian treaty team hopes to create a modernized agreement that allows B.C. dams to adapt to climate change.

“One of our key goals is to gain more flexibility in how B.C. operates its Treaty dams,” she said

“This would allow us to adjust dam operations to support ecosystems, Indigenous cultural values, and socio-economic interests, such as recreation and tourism.

“It’s important that a modernized Treaty includes fair compensation for the benefits the Treaty provides to irrigation, navigation, fisheries and recreation in the U.S.

“At the same time, we want to continue benefiting from providing flood-risk management downstream and coordinating with the U.S. to ensure that the region continues to produce clean, renewable energy.”