Renegotiation of Cross-border Columbia River Treaty Planned

Canada agrees to US request to overhaul 'out of step' agreement for important BC river.

By Chris Wood 14 Mar 2016 |

Chris Wood is the author of Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources and Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America. Wood is also an editor for Tyee Solutions Society.

A spokesman for Canada's department of international affairs, Global Affairs Canada, confirms it is ready to renegotiate the 52-year-old treaty that governs the Columbia River.

The river is the source of half of British Columbia's electricity, hundreds of millions of dollars in government revenues, and millions more spent annually by the Columbia Basin Trust, which distributes public benefits from the deal.

The treaty controls management of the Mica, Keenleyside and Duncan dams, which were built on Canadian stretches of the river during the 1960s by the W.A.C. Bennett government to maximize flood control and power generation downstream in the United States.

Critics have complained that the half-century-old treaty is out of step with 21st-century realities, such as climate change. In a 2014 book on the subject, Canada's leading independent water advocate Robert Sandford, Simon Fraser University professor Deborah Harford and University of Victoria professor Jon O'Riordan argue, for example, that Canada is owed millions of dollars more than it has been paid for the value of downstream benefits from the treaty to U.S. agriculture.

Complaining that U.S. efforts to negotiate changes to the treaty terms have been rebuffed by Canada and B.C. for years, Washington Democrat Senator Maria Cantwell seized the moment to approach Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his recent visit to the U.S. capital and pressed him on the issue.

Her staff later released a statement saying that, "the Canadian leaders agreed to move forward and appoint a chief negotiator to begin treaty talks."

Joseph Pickerill, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, confirmed in an email to The Tyee that, "We have now committed to appointing a negotiating team for comprehensive talks with our United States partner to modernize the Columbia River Treaty."

Treaty brings hundreds of millions in payments

The border-straddling Columbia River is the second largest by volume in the United States after the Mississippi, and Canada's third largest. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, dams on the river have a collective generating capacity of 29 gigawatts.

The treaty provides B.C. with between $100 million and $300 million a year in payments for the increased value of electricity generated by dams on the U.S. side of the river -- including the immense, 6,620-megawatt Grand Coulee Dam -- that benefit from the management of river flows on the Canadian part of the river.

There is no expiry date for the treaty, but it can be amended or ended, on 10 years' notice, any time after 2024. U.S. interests have been pressing for more than two years for Canada to respond to a request to discuss changes to the way the Columbia is managed under the treaty.

Canadian environmentalists and water experts have also been pressing the B.C. government to develop a plan to bring the treaty up to date. Sandford, Harford and O'Riordan argue that its nearly 60-year-old terms need to be updated to reflect changing social priorities on the protection of river ecosystems, First Nations rights that were largely ignored when the treaty was first negotiated, and climate change, which is altering water flows in the 668,500 square-kilometre Columbia basin.  [Tyee]

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