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Salmon, Tribal Interests at Stake in Columbia River Treaty Update

The 50-year-old treaty with Canada governing the massive Columbia River system is up for revision. Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University explains what’s at stake as the two nations begin to discuss changes.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
A Chinook salmon, second from the bottom, swims in the Columbia River with sockeye salmon at the Bonneville Dam fish-counting window near North Bonneville, Wash. A treaty governing the Columbia River made little accommodation for salmon when it was signed in 1964.Rick Bowmer, AP

The Columbia River Basin is as large as France. It holds more than 450 dams that provide billions of dollars in water, hydropower, flood control and recreation benefits. What many don’t realize is that all this is governed by an international treaty with Canada that is nearing the end of its term.

The Columbia River Treaty was signed in 1964. A clause allows either nation to pull out of the treaty starting in 2014. That hasn’t happened. But negotiations have begun to modernize the treaty. Many consider this overdue, and it could shake up the economic fortunes of the river and its many tributaries, including the Salmon, Snake and Willamette rivers.

Two major constituencies that were left out of the original treaty appear likely to have a big role in the future: American and Canadian Indigenous groups and environmental interests. The original treaty ignored both.

The Obama administration started a process to collect public and tribal input on the treaty. It remains unclear what the Trump administration will do.

To help explain the treaty and its future, Water Deeply recently spoke with Aaron Wolf, professor of geography at Oregon State University and director of the school’s program in water conflict management.

Water Deeply: What is this treaty, exactly?

Aaron Wolf: The Columbia is a huge basin, encompassing five U.S. states, one Canadian province, 15 tribal reservations (in the U.S.) and nine homelands of First Nations in Canada. So it’s huge. And back in the ’30s, as we were trying to get out of the Depression and ramping up toward World War II, we in the U.S. started to develop dams primarily for hydropower but also to allow for barge transportation. Then, with the World War II effort, use of the basin just got very intense.

And afterward, as part of the Cold War, we built a lot of nuclear facilities in the basin as part of our weapons program. Returning soldiers were using irrigation water around Grand Coulee Dam. Drier parts of Washington, especially, were suddenly irrigated. The U.S. got a jumpstart using the water intensively. To go any further, it was clear we needed to develop cooperation with Canada to jointly manage dams in the U.S. and Canada, primarily for hydropower.

That led to the 1964 Columbia River Treaty. It focused on how you would manage the basin for hydropower and flood control if you took away the borders. Then when you put back the borders, you divide up the benefits and split them in two.

For those two things, the treaty was absolutely phenomenal. We were able to develop some of the cheapest hydropower in the world, and massive floods were halted. At the time, the benefits were disproportionately in the U.S., so we cut a check to Canada for the hydropower and flood control, and we’ve done that ever since.

There were three things it didn’t do. One was it didn’t incorporate tribal rights, tribal management or concerns in the dialogue at all on either side of the border. It didn’t incorporate thinking about ecosystem health, especially around salmon passage up and down the river. And it didn’t incorporate any semblance of public participation. In the intervening years, all three of those became more powerful, both separately and collectively.

Water Deeply: And the treaty is expiring, right, or it will soon?

Wolf: No. As it happens, the treaty is not actually expiring. What’s happening is that one component of the flood management will actually expire in 2024. But what happened in 2014 was from that moment on, either country could give 10 years’ notice that they wanted to withdraw from the treaty. That was the impetus to start to have these dialogues about what we want to do.

Nobody gave notice in 2014. Both countries launched very intensive technical studies and also basinwide listening sessions to find out what the concerns were and how the two countries should go forward. It’s been managed regionally, but of course it has to be negotiated at the national level. So, suddenly, Ottawa and Washington are involved, even though we’ve been having long dialogues and relationships here in the Pacific Northwest.

This is a really well-functioning treaty. If we scrap it, it would require going to the (U.S.) Senate for ratification, which nobody wants to see happen in this day and age. So the question then becomes, how do you modernize an existing treaty? How do you incorporate these three things that weren’t incorporated originally without scrapping the treaty entirely?

So nothing happens until 2024. Right now, we’re preparing for negotiations and there may well be preliminary negotiations. But at this point it’s out of the public eye. What happens in these listening sessions, both sides came to the recommendation that ecosystem health ought to be incorporated in a modernized treaty.

Water Deeply: What effect will tribal involvement have in an updated treaty?

Wolf: Tribal concerns are going to bring in a whole new element. It has already. The Corps of Engineers led discussions on the U.S. side, and they established what they call the Sovereign Review Team. What they considered the sovereign entities were the historical entities: the five U.S. states and the federal agencies. But they also incorporated the 15 U.S. tribes. So they’ve had a formal place at the Sovereign Review Team.

What the tribes did, which I think was a big boon for them, was they negotiated among themselves and came up with a unified position among the 15 tribes. And the tribes on both sides of the border have come out with a document making recommendations on the management of the Columbia. One of the recommendations, of course, is a much stronger, effective tribal management role.

Water Deeply: Will the value of hydropower and flood control swing away from the U.S. in the new treaty?

Wolf: Well, currently it benefits both parties equally. When you calculate the benefit on both sides of the border, the U.S. got more benefit, but then equalized that benefit by cutting checks to Canada. So both sides share the benefit of the water, but not the water itself.

My own suspicion is the bulk of the negotiations will be around two things. One will be managing water and tweaking the water management – and especially the dam management – to be more cognizant of the needs of salmon and salmon passage.

And two, part of the dialogue will be more around money than water itself. When we calculate the value of flood control, for example, the value of preventing a flood in 1964 is much different than the value of a flood now. We now have higher population density, and more valuable property could be damaged. And it’s the same with hydropower. The energy dynamic in 1964 was fundamentally different than it is now. So thinking about new energy markets – and how much further you can actually move power nowadays than you could in the ’60s – opens up some other opportunities.

Water Deeply: What kinds of tradeoffs to help salmon might be on the table?

Grand Coulee Dam in north-central Washington State was built in the late 1930s as one of the largest concrete structures in the world. It lacks any means for salmon to move upstream beyond the dam, a possible point of contention in negotiations to update the Columbia River Treaty with Canada. (Kelly Gillin, The Wenatchee World via AP)

Wolf: You’d have to generate a little bit less power, because you’re allowing for peak floods. You’re allowing for water to basically flow through a dam rather than through turbines at specific points in time. That’s the minor issue. That can be made up with money.

The major issue is, when we built Grand Coulee Dam at the border of the U.S. and Canada, we cut off all salmon passage to Canada. And that was before the treaty. That was, I want to say, back in the ’40s, before the treaty dams. One of the things the First Nations in Canada especially have called for, and a lot of environmental groups, is a return of salmon to Canada. That’s a bigger issue.

Grand Coulee is a big dam and it was not built with fish passage. Just technically moving salmon at that elevation is a pretty difficult feat.

Water Deeply: How likely are we to see Grand Coulee salmon passage in a new treaty?

Wolf: I think that really depends more on internal Canadian dynamics, and I just don’t know. I don’t know the power of the First Nations and environmental groups, first of all within British Columbia and British Columbia’s relationship with Ottawa. Those dynamics are much different than they are in the States.

Water Deeply: What else are tribes looking for besides improvements for salmon?

Wolf: One, more of an official place at the management table. And in general, there are a number of things they’ve had historical treaty rights to that have been ignored over the years, including fishing rights, access to fishing sites and recognizing the importance of the ecosystem as a whole – not just to tribes but all people of the region. That’s what’s come up regularly.

Water Deeply: How would the river look or function differently under a new treaty?

Wolf: The biggest tweaks would be in the balancing between hydropower and fish. The dams would be operated differently, and I think most people would agree to that to one degree or another.

The other big thing is what happens at Grand Coulee. There are also four dams on lower Snake River that are proposed to be deconstructed to enhance fish habitat. I don’t think that’s going to happen, certainly not under the current [Trump] administration.

I don’t think it would be substantively different, depending on what happens at Grand Coulee. That would be a major change.

Water Deeply: Is there any reason to be concerned about the future of the treaty at this point?

Wolf: You could spin painful scenarios where the treaty is scrapped and a new treaty has to go to Congress and thereby incorporate a lot of pet political interests. But I think in the Pacific Northwest, there are really good relations across the border. And I think both sides here have been impressing upon both Ottawa and Washington that it’s really important for our relationships and our economy and our environment that we continue to have good relations and figure out a way to cooperatively manage the basin.

Water Deeply: What should the average person care about in regards to this treaty?

Wolf: A good treaty on the Columbia allows for a lot of things that happen in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the basis of our power supply. It’s a good bit of irrigated agriculture. It’s the environment that we all enjoy and have a relationship with. Maybe people don’t make a direct connection between all the stuff they love about the Pacific Northwest and this treaty. But it does undergird quite a lot of what we love about the region.

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