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Op/Ed: As Columbia River Treaty negotiators get serious, Basin residents need to speak up

Kinbasket reservoir drawdown zone; photo by Brian Gustafson

On June 29 and 30, Canada and the United States met for the tenth round of Columbia River Treaty renegotiations. The negotiations were held by web-conference due to COVID-19. Unlike previous rounds, negotiators actually started debating specific proposals. According to press releases issued by both sides, Canada responded to an initial proposal from the U.S. and presented a counter-proposal. This is big news.

The week before, in fulfilment of a pledge made to continue to engage with Basin residents around their issues and concerns, the B.C. Treaty Team released its latest report on local interests and the status of negotiations: a remarkably forthcoming document for a process conducted almost entirely behind closed doors. The Province also committed to engage Indigenous nations, local governments, and citizens on final decisions about the treaty once options become clear.

But as negotiations with the U.S. proceed, options will be whittled down toward a narrow consensus.

That’s why it’s crucial for negotiators to hear from the public now.

Our group, the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative, is participating in an Indigenous-led research process investigating how a modernized treaty could improve the health of Canadian ecosystems. This spring, we released a discussion paper and summary on this topic—and we welcome public comment. The Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee has provided similar recommendations.

The new Columbia River Treaty must include ecosystem function as a third primary purpose, equal to the existing purposes of international flood-risk management and hydropower. This means adjusting dam operations to help restore land now periodically inundated by reservoirs and improve conditions for fish and other aquatic species in downstream river reaches.

In general, reservoir operations should mimic natural systems as much as possible. We also need to have more flexibility in Canada to adapt to climate change. We can make these changes while still generating plenty of power and protecting communities from floods. To support this new mandate, Treaty governance must be reformed with biologists working alongside engineers, better international collaboration, and Indigenous nations central in decision-making. The public must have a strong voice.

More of the ongoing treaty revenue paid by the U.S. should be dedicated to relevant Basin needs.

Many people mistakenly believe the Columbia Basin Trust is funded by the treaty. In fact, it was created with a one-time $376-million payment from the Province, representing well under 10% of B.C. revenue to date.

A new agreement should provide new funds for (1) adaptive ecosystem research, restoration, and management, (2) salmon reintroduction, (3) watershed education for youth and the public, and (4) local food security.

The renegotiation of the treaty is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure a just, ecologically prosperous, and economically sustainable future for the Basin. UCBEC applauds the Canadian negotiating team, which includes the federal and provincial governments and the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc, and Syilx Okanagan nations, for breaking away from the treaty’s dark history.

Nothing since colonization has had a more destructive impact on the Upper Columbia Basin than this treaty. Four large dams (Hugh Keenleyside, Duncan, and Mica in Canada and Libby in the U.S.) were built through the treaty, which together inundated around 1200 square kilometres of ecologically- and agriculturally-rich land, flooding over a dozen communities.

To this day, Canadian treaty dams are partially operated to meet treaty requirements that serve downstream American interests. In 1964, the federal government signed the treaty without consulting with Indigenous nations or Basin residents.  BC Hydro and the Province enforced the removal of condemned communities with what many people felt was inadequate compensation and little to no empathy.

Thankfully, we’re living in a different time. We can speak directly to negotiators and ask them to make sure ecosystem function becomes the third treaty purpose so that river flows will be shaped to also benefit ecosystems and their diverse plant and animal communities.

Send a comment to negotiators today by email (columbiarivertreaty@gov.bc.ca), Facebook @ColumbiaRiverTreaty), or Twitter (@CRTreaty).

And when the Province holds its next round of formal public engagement, we all need to show up. We are fortunate to have government officials in charge who truly want to listen. Let’s seize the opportunity.

Submitted by Dr. Martin Carver, Lead & Coordinator, Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative

The Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative(UCBEC) is a collaboration of a cross-section of environmental voices from the Upper Columbia Basin representing provincial, regional and local environmental groups. Current members include the Sierra Club of British Columbia, BC Nature, Wildsight, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Friends of Kootenay Lake Stewardship Society, and the North Columbia Environment Society.

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