By Nick Houtman
“We need to do the right thing and look after the river. Itʼs not about the treaty; itʼs about taking care of the river.”
— Notes from Second Annual Symposium of the Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance
The next time you fly out of the Portland airport or sit in a restaurant within a stone’s throw of the Columbia River, give a grateful nod to the Spicer family of Nakusp, British Columbia. The village of about 1,500 people sits along Upper Arrow Lake in a picturesque valley framed by the Canadian Rockies. At high water, the marina is filled with boats for exploring this nearly 150-mile long reservoir created by the Hugh Keenleyside Dam downstream on the Columbia. Nearby hot springs are a tourist attraction.
However, this idyllic spot used to support a more ecologically diverse and productive farming community. Located on rich river-bottom lands, the Spicer farm was known throughout the region for its bounty of potatoes, asparagus, corn and other produce. Then in 1969, Christopher Spicer watched waters from the newly built dam flood some of his best fields. He and his family were allowed to stay in their home, but BC Hydro had ordered that the structure was to be burned after his death (the home was later saved by a reprieve from the company president).
The Spicers were among the estimated 2,300 people in two dozen communities who lost homes and farms to the rising waters behind what are known as “the Treaty dams” — three in Canada and one in Montana. Designed to reduce flooding in the United States and generate electricity to be shared equally by both countries, the dams owe their existence to the Columbia River Treaty, the agreement between the U.S. and Canada that went into effect in 1964.
Thanks to the sacrifices made by those who lost property to the new reservoirs, development along the lower Columbia has proceeded with confidence that it would be protected from floodwaters. The likelihood of floods has been significantly reduced. Indeed, the devastation wrought by high water in 1948 may have been on the minds of negotiators as they structured the treaty. In that year, the Columbia was swollen by snowmelt in its Canadian headwaters and by torrential spring rains. The river breached a railroad embankment and destroyed the city of Vanport just north of Portland. High waters made the Portland airport unusable for several months. The damage put a spotlight on a need unmet by the flurry of dam building in previous decades. Most of the more than 60 dams on the Columbia and its tributaries were designed to generate electricity, not to reduce floods. Indeed, the basin produces more power than any other watershed in the United States.
But the Columbia River Treaty simultaneously expanded hydropower and added capacity for managing floods. Although some provisions for managing high waters will expire in 2024, the agreement was intended to continue in perpetuity. However, either the U.S. or Canada could signal an intention to withdraw or revise it with 10 years notice. That step was taken in December 2013 when the U.S. State Department formally announced its intention to renegotiate. Formal talks began May 2017.
In the years after it was ratified, the agreement was considered a model of an effective transboundary arrangement, says Aaron Wolf, professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) at Oregon State University. “It allocates benefits, not water, which is a huge step forward. It shared both expenses and benefits of development, which was done collaboratively between the two countries, from the design of shared dams to how benefits would be shared. Interestingly, there’s no river basin organization. It’s a very elaborate system of coordination.”
Wolf and Lynette de Silva, an instructor in CEOAS, co-direct the Water Conflict Management and Transformation program at OSU. They study rivers that cross international boundaries, such as the Euphrates and Jordan in the Middle East, the Nile in Africa and the Mekong in Southeast Asia. And just as on the Columbia, decisions by one nation to build a dam or manage water for other purposes such as agriculture, can have drastic consequences for countries downstream.
In 2008, Wolf and de Silva became aware that, despite its landmark status, the Columbia River Treaty was about to enter a period of uncertainty. Both Canada and the U.S. could begin to renegotiate its terms as early as 2014, and yet the potential for a new treaty was attracting little attention. So, the two OSU faculty members began collaborating with colleagues at other universities in the Pacific Northwest to create the Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance.
The consortium brought together citizens, scientists, managers and governments — local, tribal, state, provincial and federal — to consider the needs of the river and the communities along its shores. The forums were informal with no legal impact on policymaking. However, they provided an opening for dialogue. There had been no opportunities throughout the basin for residents to share views about the river and to consider how the treaty might be revised.
Despite its status as an effective agreement providing clear benefits to both countries, the treaty has been found wanting. Tribal governments in the United States and First Nations in Canada were excluded from the talks that produced the agreement. Moreover, the document ignores the river basin’s rich ecological heritage. There is no mention of the abundant runs of salmon that have been excluded from much of the basin and have dwindled elsewhere. And since the 1960s, other issues missing from the treaty — such as water quality, navigation, recreation and climate change — have become significant for river managers.
The consortium meetings ranged widely. “The conversations were really rich and productive. Nobody wanted to scrap the treaty,” says Wolf.
If the treaty was done away with, it would be destined for Congress and subjected to requirements that have nothing to do with water or the region. So the group started talking about modernizing the treaty, collectively saying that the modernized treaty would have to consider the environment as a third leg of treaty management goals, equal to hydropower and flood control. And that representation of both the public at large and especially the tribes should be fostered and incorporated.
“These were things we all collectively agreed to and signed onto,” adds Wolf. “And they do show up in the official negotiating positions of Canada and the U.S. Both sides sent official representatives to our meetings.”
Tribal and First Nation participation in negotiations for a new treaty were seen as especially important, says de Silva. “The tribes have a unique relationship to the federal governments, both legal and political, which surpasses what other stakeholders and individuals have,” he says. “From that perspective, they need to be at the negotiating table. They weren’t part of it in 1964, and it would be detrimental to find ourselves in that predicament again.” At a consortium meeting held at Oregon State in Corvallis in 2010, representatives of the tribes and First Nations held formal ceremonies honoring their renewed relationships and common bonds.
Nevertheless, when negotiations began last spring, the U.S. negotiating team included agencies with official standing in implementing the treaty: The State Department, Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of the Interior. On the Canadian side are representatives of BC Hydro and the Canadian federal government. The tribes and First Nations continue to be consulted in the process, but observers have expressed disappointment that they are not at the table.
“We have so much more in common with each other in the Pacific Northwest than we have with Ottawa or Washington, D.C.,” says Wolf. “We have a Northwest ethic. We care about the things that have been missing in the treaty. We all care about the environment. We all care about tribal representation. And we all care about the benefits that the treaty has
A Place for Students
In addition to bringing people together, the consortium provided students with an invaluable lesson in regional decision- making and politics. Students served as facilitators and helped to organize discussions. A graduate student, Julie Watson, interviewed people with a stake in the discussions and produced a film about the river (see transboundarywaters.science.oregonstate.edu/content/student- testimonials#Watson)
Another student, Kim Ogren, currently works on water supply issues for the Oregon Water Resources Department. In 2010, she had just started a master’s program in water resources, management and policy at OSU. “The consortium was great in that it brought everyone together whose identity is tied to this place,” she says. “A lot of folks came representing different interests. People in Portland benefit from flood control. They can live there and prosper because of this protection. For the people in Canada, they live along reservoirs that go up and down every year a lot. Their properties were flooded by the reservoirs.”
Ogren leveraged her experience in the consortium meetings into a Ph.D. on river basin governance and an internship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland. She interviewed people in the U.S. and Canada about the treaty and found that people north of the border were generally more aware of the agreement. “It creates the possibility to live in Portland because of flood protection,” she says. “We just take it for granted. In Canada, it seemed like everyone knew about the treaty. In the U.S., because we don’t have as many negative impacts, people just aren’t aware.”
The informal nature of the consortium process was both a blessing and a curse, adds Ogren. On one hand, participants could feel free to speak openly without the burden of formally representing an organization or taking a position. However, neither government was required to incorporate or respond to the views expressed in the meetings. The gatherings lacked the impact of a formal process, she says.
Today, Nakusp and other riverside communities continue to see impacts from the reservoirs. Seasonal drawdowns in preparation for the spring snowmelt create mudflats and leave marinas high and dry. Winds blow dust into homes and businesses. The shorelines that used to thrive with abundant vegetation and wildlife have become all but silent.
In the hopes of restoring some of what they have lost, citizen activists are calling for limits to how much the reservoir water levels can change from season to season. Other observers are tracking the negotiations in the hope that their views will have an impact.
“Nobody will point to the universities consortium and say that’s what caused peace on the Columbia,” says Wolf. “But we did foster a lot of good dialogue when only universities could pick that up.”