Bringing a 60 year old treaty into the 21st century
The Solutions We Need
A “modernized” Columbia River Treaty must align with modern values of Indigenous sovereignty, economic and environmental partnership and civic engagement, and the modern reality of climate change.
To do this, the Treaty must be updated to:
- Make ecosystem health co-equal to existing treaty purposes of power production and flood control, so river flows and reservoir operations support fish and clean water
- Reform treaty governance and implementation to include expert representation for ecosystems, like biologists working alongside engineers
- Develop a new agreement for coordinating flood control across the border, so there is a balanced system for all
- Share hydropower and other benefits produced by the treaty fairly between the two countries, in keeping with its original principle
- Ensure the modernized treaty respects the rights of tribes and Indigenous nations and honors their unique expertise
- Create ongoing mechanisms for public education and citizen involvement, starting right now with renewed engagement between federal agencies and the Northwest public.
How we got here
Indigenous people have stewarded the Columbia River, which draws water from a river basin larger than France, and depended on its salmon since time immemorial. When explorers Lewis & Clark and David Thompson first stepped into the watershed in the early 1800s, as many as 16 million salmon returned each year to natal streams flowing in forests, deserts, and mountains.
Since then dams have transformed one of the earth’s richest salmon rivers into the earth’s largest integrated hydropower system. The resulting economic benefits have come with wrenching costs to both Indigenous and settler communities, fish and wildlife, and the river itself.
Part of this transformation came in the early 1950’s when Canada and the U.S. began negotiating the Columbia River Treaty to coordinate river development across the border. They excluded Indigenous people, and people of the basin generally, from the process. The resulting treaty, ratified in 1964, has only two purposes: maximizing hydropower generation and engineered flood control.
While treaty operations primarily concern three large upstream Canadian storage dams (plus Libby Dam in Montana), it has consequences everywhere. Only 15% of the watershed is located in Canada, but more than a third of the Columbia’s total flow originates there.
Canada is also the basin’s largest and most climate resilient source of cold water, which is critical for ensuring water quality for migrating salmon and other ecologically and culturally important aquatic species.
The Problems We Face
Since May 2018, the U.S. and Canada have been meeting to negotiate a “modernized” Columbia River Treaty.
Now, both countries are signaling that a new long-term agreement could take shape as soon as this summer. Faced with a changing climate and severely depleted salmon populations, we have an opportunity today to make big, much-needed improvements to this international treaty and the health of the Columbia River.
The 1964 Columbia River Treaty was ratified before the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Boldt Decision and other key frameworks designed to protect ecosystems and honor the rights of the watershed’s tribal nations. Standards for meaningful public engagement were also much lower than they are today. So, it’s no surprise that the treaty ignores ecosystems, contains no formal role for tribes, and fails to involve the affected public.
Further, the current Treaty ignores climate change, leaving Columbia Basin communities unprepared for that immense challenge. On top of this, in September 2024, the flood control portion of the treaty will change unless the two countries reach a new agreement first. This change is not yet well defined but will shift responsibility for flood control from Canada to the U.S.
Without a solid plan, this may sow chaos for the hydrosystem’s precariously balanced priorities. The U.S. NGO Treaty Caucus is gravely concerned that federal agencies will further de-prioritize the health of fish and wildlife in response. Detailed planning for this potential shift must begin approximately one year in advance, which is less than one year away from now. Advance planning is more than four years overdue.
Northwest people know we need to do better. A modernized Treaty must include 'Ecosystem Function' – the health of the river and its inhabitants – as a new, third co-equal purpose. And the Treaty’s governance system must be reformed to include expert voices who will advocate for a resilient river and Northwest communities that depend upon it.