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Columbia River Treaty modernization talks remain ongoing

Canada, U.S. delegations held informal talks this spring to further clarify positions and proposals
View of the Columbia River shoreline in Trail. Photo: Jessee Regnier

Canada and the United States continue to negotiate the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty, as delegations with both sides have met informally four times this spring to advance the discussions.

According to an update from the province, delegations met recently to discuss ways of moving the talks forward from official proposals that were tabled two years ago by both sides.

However, a new U.S. proposal was tabled on May 17, which included a framework for operations and addresses flood-risk management, hydropower coordination, ecosystem co-operation and Canadian operational flexibility.

The Canadian negotiating team, which includes representatives from Canada, B.C. and the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations, continues to collaborate on developing and refining negotiating positions that will benefit the B.C. portion of the Columbia Basin, according to the province.

The Canadian delegation recently held a virtual public meeting on May 16 to provide an update on the state of the negotiations, which are aiming for the 13th round of formal talks in early August.

Canada remains open to providing flood protection and continues to see merit in cooperating on power generation, according to Sylvain Fabi, Consul General of Canada in Denver, and chief negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty modernization.

However, Fabi also reiterated a stated goal of ensuring greater domestic flexibility in Canada to support ecosystems, Indigenous cultural values and socioeconomic objectives in the Columbia River Basin.

“Everything we do, every position we put forward and defend with the United States, is discussed, developed and agreed upon between Canada, British Columbia, the Ktunaxa, Syilx Okanagan and Secwepemc representatives always,” Fabi said. “There’s nothing unilateral on this.”

Shuswap Band Chief Barb Cote opened the virtual public meeting on May 16 highlighting the importance and significance of Indigenous inclusion in the treaty modernization.

“In front of us is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Cote said. “An opportunity to broaden an international treaty so it encompasses the concepts and ideas needed to be inclusive to more than flood and power generation. An opportunity to join two sciences — Western and Indigenous — to achieve operations reflective of a healthy river. An opportunity to aid in the recovery of a river that was once the largest salmon run in the world. An opportunity to have the Basin’s people reconnect with the resources so vitally important to their cultural survival and key to their health. An opportunity to have all of the values of the Basin considered.”

Another public meeting is scheduled for June 15 that will focus on Indigenous-led research and assessments on how reservoir and river operations might be modified to improve aquatic and riparian ecosystems in the B.C. portion of the Colubmia Basin.

The Columbia River Treaty is a decades-old water sharing agreement between Canada and the United States. The treaty, ratified in 1964, offered downstream flood protection in the United States and facilitated the construction of three dams in British Columbia and one in Montana.

However, the treaty has been historically criticized for a lack of consultation with Indigenous nations at the time of the original negotiations. The construction of the dams and flooding of reservoirs inundated 110,000 hectares of land, displacing thousands of residents and First Nation communities, as well as adversely impacting ecosystems, cultural values, agriculture, tourism and forestry sectors.

The treaty has no end date, but either Canada or the United States can unilaterally terminate the agreement from September 2024 and beyond, provided that 10 years of advance notice is given.

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Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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