This is a call for action. The Columbia River Treaty between Canada and the U.S. can be revised or terminated in 2024 with 10 years notice. This fall or winter (2013) the B.C. and federal governments will decide what they will do.
Those who govern with a majority can be less likely to listen to their citizens but we must make a strong attempt to be heard and seize this opportunity to revisit this agreement to get a better deal for Canada and the environment.
The Columbia River Treaty created three massive dams in Canada, the Keenleyside (Arrow), the Mica and the Duncan and one in the U.S., the Libby Dam. It guarantees the U.S. millions of gallons of storage water and Canada receives guaranteed downstream benefits annually of $100-300 million. A pittance when measured against the 50 years of damage to the ecosystem.
Many interest groups on both sides of the border propose conflicting amendments or termination. Once the Columbia River was wild and inaccessible, but in the early 1800s fur traders hoped to find a river that would connect their trading posts to the Pacific. The original human inhabitants of the Columbia River Basin, the North American Tribes (U.S.) and the First Nations (Canada), lost everything to the dams after 10,000 years of successful coexistence. Salmon was sustenance for body and soul. In the U.S. there are numerous tribes deeply involved in restoring their fishery.
Further, when the dams were built, there was the summary eviction of many families from their farms. There are people on the Arrow Lakes who are still bitter and angry because they feel no genuine consultation or compensation ever occurred. The Columbia River is the most heavily dammed river in the world, and now we know at what huge cost to the natural domain and its denizens we tamed it.
The dams and reservoirs provide water for five sectors. Flood control, navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation in the northwest U.S. and recreational tourism.
Consider the salmon. They travel thousands of miles in their lifetimes using the earth’s magnetic field to navigate back to the very streams where they were born after months or years in the ocean. They swam upstream for hundreds of miles, against the current and up the waterfalls to spawn and die on gravel bars, their decomposing bodies providing food for their own young and many other creatures.
The builders of the treaty dams did not consider the salmon at all. After 1941, the Grand Coulee Dam eliminated fish passage to the Upper Columbia. No fish ladders ensured the largest Chinook salmon and steelhead trout runs in the world were destroyed. Dam builders insisted the fish could go downriver through the turbines unharmed. But how could they get back? By 1983, the salmon and trout population was three percent of the historic peak of sixteen million fish, according to Northwest Passage, The Great Columbia River by William Dietrich.
Billions of dollars in both countries have been spent to restock the Columbia with dismal results. Without a functional riparian zone and supporting ecosystem, this was inevitable. The U.S. has good environmental protections. Canada has lost a great deal of habitat and species.
Dams cause extensive modification of the flow and contours of a river. Water in reservoirs is warmer, loses nutrients to sediments and has reduced aeration. Effluents from logging, agriculture, smelters, factories and pulp mills further compromise it.
This river “flows” for 1,243 miles in 258,000 square miles through many national, state, and regional jurisdictions all with specific legislation and policies and lobbied by many special interest groups with different agendas.
And now we must consider the effects of climate change. The glaciers at the Columbia Ice fields that help fill this river are melting. Climate change models forecast there will be less snow but more rain and that the freshets will occur earlier in the year.
With the Columbia River Treaty, Canada surrendered its sovereignty over its share of the river. BC Hydro is responsible for Canadian operations, a crown corporation mistrusted due to unfulfilled past promises. Dam failure is also a real fear of many residents of the Basin.
We know how resilient Mother Earth can be. We must make the most of this chance to revitalize the Columbia River Basin. Make your voice heard soon. The B.C. government needs to hear from us. Go to www.revivethebasin.ca for links to the agencies involved.
-contributed by J. Molly Bell