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Province declares interest in continuing Columbia River Treaty

John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower at the signing of the Columbia River Treaty, January 1961.  - By White House Photo Office [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower at the signing of the Columbia River Treaty, January 1961.
— image credit: By White House Photo Office [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

B.C. has laid its cards on the table and declared, ahead of schedule, that it wishes to continue the Columbia River Treaty that governs water management between Canada and the U.S.

Ratified in 1964, the Columbia River Treaty is a management agreement between the two countries that allowed for four dams to be built on the Columbia River, three in B.C. and one in the U.S. – Libby Dam on Koocanusa. It helps to prevent catastrophic flooding in both Canada and the U.S., and optimizes power generation along the rivers.

Through the treaty, the U.S. provides B.C. with between $100 million and $300 million each year to offset the impacts of damming the Columbia River.

Columbia Basin Trust, a Crown corporation, was created in 1995 to support social, economic and environmental well-being in the Columbia River Basin using some of the proceeds of the treaty.

The treaty doesn’t have an end date, but the U.S. and Canada have the chance to terminate the agreement on or after September 16, 2024. Either side has to give at least 10 years’ notice of the termination, meaning that both sides were reviewing the benefits and future options of the treaty ahead of the September 2014 deadline.

Following extensive consultations during the two-year treaty review process, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, Kootenay East’s MLA, announced on Thursday, March 13, that B.C. wants to continue the treaty, and outlined 14 principles that will guide the province in negotiations with the U.S.

B.C.’s final decision concludes that both countries must recognize that for every cost associated with the treaty, there are important benefits that should be shared by both parties.

“We think that we need to identify and put a value on benefits that are being received in the U.S. that currently are not accounted for in the treaty,” Bennett told the Townsman on Thursday.

He said that the “dollars and cents” B.C. receives from the U.S. under the treaty no longer reflect the benefit of avoiding a major flood in the Pacific Northwest.

“We have not had a major flood in the U.S. on the Columbia system since the Canadian dams were built 50 years ago. That’s a huge benefit and it’s really not accounted for in the treaty.”

Other ways the treaty helps the U.S. are through spills to help endangered fish in the U.S., the use of the Columbia system for river transportation, and the use of the river for irrigation in Washington’s winery industry and other agriculture.

“These are all benefits that have accrued to the U.S. over the past 50 years as a result of the coordination and management of all of these dams, many of which are in Canada,” said Bennett.

“We want to talk about that, we want to decide whether Canada is actually receiving the return or compensation from providing those benefits that we should be.”

He also pointed out that one of the 14 principles asks for increased control by B.C. of the Libby Dam in Montana, which is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and results in the rise and fall of Koocanusa reservoir, a popular East Kootenay recreational lake.

“We’re the only place in B.C. that has a water body that is dammed up in the U.S. So we don’t have the same authority over that dam that B.C. has over dams in the West Kootenay. Those dams are in Canada so they can work with B.C. Hydro on their operation and coordination, whereas the Libby Dam is in the States and we don’t have as much influence there. So I’d like to change that. I’d like to improve the opportunity that we have to manage that water flow for the benefit of Lake Koocanusa.”

Other principles in the decision include considerations around flood control, hydropower generation, ecosystems and climate change, while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to evolving economic, social and environmental circumstances in each country.

The U.S. State Department is yet to reveal its position on continuing the treaty, and it has until Sept. 16, 2014 to declare that.

“I’m expecting that they are going to want to continue with the treaty and try to work for some benefits within the framework of the treaty, but I don’t know that until they come out and say,” said Bennett.

The principles that the province outlined Thursday will allow both the U.S. and Canadians to see what B.C. will be negotiating on should the U.S. decide to continue the treaty, Bennett said.

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