Columbia River Treaty celebrates 50th anniversary

Historic international treaty was ratified on this day in 1964.

Fifty years ago today, Canada and the United States signed the Columbia River Treaty – the agreement that outlines the development and operation of four dams designed for power generation and flood control between the two countries.

Signed by Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961, the treaty went into effect on Sept. 16, 1964, after funding for the dams was calculated and negotiations were complete.

While flood control was already on the governments’  mind, the treaty was deemed necessary by both countries after the 1948 flood that left a path of destruction from Trail to Astoria, Oregon, washing away infrastructure. It took a few years of research and writing reports and proposals to get a final draft ready to be signed.

Gord DeRosa, chairman of the Canadian Columbia River Forum and board member of the Columbia Basin Trust, says the agreement was historic and to this day, is a treaty that should be held as an example.

“The treaty itself is probably one the best international treaties,” he said. “It is used as a model (elsewhere) and it has served both nations extremely well.”

The signing of the treaty provided flood protection for the Trail and Castlegar areas and led to the creation of the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) as a way to address the financial and sociological impact of floods and relocations. Nearly 2,500 people were relocated to build the dams and large tracts of fertile land were lost during construction.

Three Canadian dams – Duncan, Mica and Keenleyside – were built between 1964 and 1973 as a direct result of the treaty as well as one in Libby, Montana. Canada was paid a lump sum at the signing of the treaty to cover the annual flood control benefits in the U.S. and receives half of the potential power generation financial benefits. The first 30 years of the treaty payments were covered in a lump sum payment of $264 million in 1964, with annual payments starting in 1998.

The original agreement gave the U.S. nearly 20 square kilometres of water storage space behind three separate dams.

Once they were built, the benefits were shared between the two countries, both financially and in terms of flood protection.

Part of the original treaty stated that the agreement would be held in place for a minimum of 60 years. If either Canada or the United States want to change or terminate the treaty, they have to give written notice, 10 years in advance. Tuesday is the first day that is possible. Some amendments are already being discussed after numerous conferences and public input sessions.

When the treaty was signed, says DeRosa, the environment wasn’t an issue, but over the last few years, both sides have gathered public opinions and published formal reviews on the issue and the resounding answer has been to update the document regarding wildlife and environmental impact.

“When you think about these ecosystems, it doesn’t stop at the 49th parallel,” said DeRosa. “Back then, there was no sensitivity to ecosystems. The only things addressed were flood control and power generation. It has done that, but now we have to have a third leg to the story – the ecosystems.”

One environmental issue that stands out for DeRosa is the lack of salmon in the Upper Columbia River.

“Hopefully, (negotiators) can see the benefit of returning the salmon to the Upper Columbia River,” he said. “The salmon were stopped by a dam in 1939 to 1942, but now is the time to start throwing the salmon back in. I am really optimistic that, and maybe not in my time, we will see salmon back in the Upper Columbia.”

Over the last couple of years, the United States side of the treaty, made up of the Bonneville Power Authority and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, has expressed its belief that it has been paying Canada to large of an annual entitlement. Currently, the payments to Canada have averaged around $250 million per year. DeRosa thinks their ideas are a bit off base.

“Fifty per cent of the power generated as a result of the water Canada sends to the U.S. comes back by way of energy,” he said. “We can sell it for almost $350 million per year – water is pretty valuable stuff. I heard first hand at a convention that the top officials down there (in the U.S.) that they expect to be paying 10 per cent of what they are paying now. It is okay for them to say that, but you have to think, what is flood control worth to the U.S.?”

Regardless of financial debate, DeRosa says he is optimistic about the future of the treaty.

“I think that both sides will realize that we have to make the best of what we have and at the end of the day, all will be well,” he said. “I would expect the treaty to carry on and just make improvements as we go along.”

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