Recent view of the Columbia River from Sunningdale. (Jim Bailey photo)

Columbia River Treaty talks with U.S. slated for 2018

Gord DeRosa, long-time Columbia River advocate, shares views

“What is the value of flood control to the Americans?”

On Dec. 7, the US Department of State announced that early next year, it will begin negotiations with Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty, a vital transboundary agreement ratified in 1964.

“As many a ways as it has been couched, the most prominent, to me, was from a Chief from the Spokane Tribe of Indians,” says Gord DeRosa, a lifelong Columbia River advocate and 26-year Trail councillor now retired.

“I was at a Portland workshop when he said, ‘All we’ve done is take the flood waters out of Portland and stored it in Canada,’” DeRosa explained. “Which is the most simplistic way of looking at it, and that’s exactly what we have done. But in doing that, there has to be some benefits for us.”

Flood control and the massive financial benefit generated from dam construction will certainly be keynote in upcoming talks.

But 50 years on there are 21st century concepts – like ecological protection and insight from people who actually live in the Basin – these factors are also key and must come into play this time around.

“Of course downstream benefits are massive,” said DeRosa. “We get 50 per cent of power generation from all the water we send down there, so that can come to the tune of anywhere from $200 million to $350 million, depending on the year, and that’s a lot of money of course,” he emphasized.

“And of course, the whole issue of how much water we have and when do we get it – that’s what the treaty is all about.”

As a representative of the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee, DeRosa was just back from a meeting in Cranbrook that included an update from the Canadian perspective.

“Now, of course, we’ve got to get the third leg on the stool and add ecological issues, so there’s been much talk about what we need to be looking at and the concerns we have,” DeRosa said. “We’ve intensively exhausted all the issues we think we have on our side, but the Americans haven’t done as good a job on canvassing their citizenry.”

Much emotion still swirls around the original treaty and the land so many families lost as a result.

“We are more emotional about this because we had the impact of losing the Arrow Lakes land base and the displacement of all those people up there,” DeRosa said. “And back then, there was no negotiation with the citizens of the Basin. They came in and said we are taking your land, flooding you out, and replacing you with water.”

Urban sprawl is another factor to consider in a modernized treaty, after all, land use south of the border certainly changed over the past 50 years.

“If we let the water go, we will be flooding a lot of development that wasn’t there in 1964,” DeRosa said.

“So what’s the value of flood control now, with all that extra infrastructure?”

Where the Americans stand on renegotiation remains to be seen, but DeRosa suggested what may present a big rippling effect.

“The overarching concern we have is where the President of the United States might want to see things go,” he stressed. “This is my own opinion, but this treaty might be part of a greater negotiation whether it be NAFTA, softwood lumber, dairy – is this in the same tool box as all the other outstanding issues we have to resolve with the United States as cross border trade.”

I don’t know but I assume that it will be, DeRosa surmised.

“This is a big deal, no where else in the world is there a cross border treaty negotiation like we have on the Columbia River – so where they want to take it, I don’t know,” he emphasized.

“Bottom line, it’s all about water and how precious it really is, just think.”

Columbia River Song from Voyages of Rediscovery on Vimeo.

Vimeo: Filmed on the banks of the Columbia River in Trail, we hope you are moved as we are by the beauty of this song. This grandpa (Gord DeRosa) and granddaughter (Neveah DeRosa Whyte) duo capture the spirit of a changing Columbia River.

What are you doing to make positive change on the Columbia River, The Great River of the West.

Song written by Bill Staines:

After the treaty was first ratified in 1964, Canada agreed to provide flood control and to build three B.C. dams — Duncan, Hugh L. Keenleyside and Mica — and allowed the U.S. to build the Libby Dam, that flooded into Canada, in exchange for “an equal share of the incremental U.S. downstream power benefits.”

Canada’s half-share of the downstream power benefits is known as the Canadian Entitlement, and under the 1963 Canada-British Columbia Agreement, the benefits are owned by the Province of B.C.

The Canadian Entitlement is provided by the U.S. as energy and capacity, not money. Between 2000 and 2010, the average annual entitlement was 1320 megawatts.

Powerex, the wholly owned electricity marketing subsidiary of BC Hydro, then sells that power at market value to BC Hydro or utilities in Alberta or the U.S.

When the treaty was first ratified, B.C. sold the first 30 years of power to a consortium of utilities in the U.S. for $254 million and used the money to build the three Columbia River Treaty dams. Those agreements expired in phases between 1998 and 2003 and B.C. now receives the full Canadian Entitlement, which is estimated to be worth $120 million annually, depending on power market prices.

The treaty has no end date but either country can end it from September 2024 onwards if at least 10 years notice is given.

In November of 2011, B.C. initiated a Columbia River Treaty Review, which resulted in a recommendation being made to the B.C. government in December 2013. That, in turn, led to the B.C. Decision, which was to continue the treaty and “seek improvements within its existing framework.”

The decision lists 14 principles that will guide any changes to the treaty pursued by B.C.

The 11th principle states that “[s]almon migration into the Columbia River in Canada was eliminated by the Grand Coulee Dam in 1938 (26 years prior to Treaty ratification), and is currently not a Treaty issue.”

You can read all 14 principles here: Columbia River Treaty.

Also in December 2013, the U.S. Entity delivered its final recommendation to the U.S. Department of State and in the fall f 2016, the department completed its review of the final recommendations and “decided to proceed with negotiations to modern the Treaty.”

Politics aside, DeRosa recalled the devastation to Arrow Lakes back when the treaty came into effect, but this time, the negotiation climate is dramatically different.

“It’s really refreshing to see the respect shown the citizens of the Basin this time around,” he said. “They’ve done really exhaustive canvassing and been very respectful of what we have to say and what the citizens in the Basin have to say and taking it seriously,” DeRosa said.

“They say there is no light between the province and the feds on this – in other words the federal government will bring our issue to the table.”

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