The Kootenay River rises in B.C., flows south, and widens into the Lake Koocanusa reservoir, formed by the Libby Dam, 130 kilometers downstream at Jennings, Mont.

COLUMN: Borders and water: can Libby Dam’s operations help B.C. residents?

Columnist Eileen Delehanty Pearkes: The border may be closed, but the water is still flowing

By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

Recent policy decisions related to the U.S. and Canada’s response to the coronavirus have brought to mind the significance of the border between the two countries. While human travel has ground to a near halt, the shared resource of water continues to cross back and forth.

Central to the 1964 Columbia River Treaty is the equitable, shared benefit of the water managed for American purposes in the upper watershed in Canada. Recently, negotiators completed the ninth round of talks to update the treaty. Official government communications were muted about the specific content, except to say that the “getting to know each other” phase is finished, and the tougher conversations have started.

Though we can know nothing about the private dynamics between negotiators, one of those conversations very likely centres on the operation of Libby Dam. Located in northwestern Montana, the dam controls the flow of the Kootenay River, which begins in B.C. on the west slope of the Rockies, flows into the U.S., then wraps back into Canada.

Key historical figures once called it a “great Canadian giveaway” for its reservoir that floods 64 kilometres into Canada, without Canada receiving either monetary compensation, or any control over operations.

There’s a lot we can talk about regarding Libby and the border, but for now I’ll focus on the efforts of local residents in the East Kootenay to advocate for a change that could right the historic wrongs done to farmers, First Nations and the river’s aquatic habitat. Farmers were paid pennies on the dollar for their flooded land. The Ktunaxa received nothing. The fish? Don’t get me started.

It’s difficult for those living in an unaffected area to understand the challenges of living and working beside a reservoir. Water levels change for sometimes mysterious reasons around Libby’s reservoir, known as Lake Koocanusa. Resentments run deep and don’t go away. Cutts Marina, located 32 kilometres above the international boundary, struggles to operate in dry years, when the upper portion of the reservoir remains at levels too low to easily launch a boat.

In March and April, as regional reservoirs prepare to receive snowmelt, Libby’s B.C. landscape, according to some residents, resembles Chernobyl. Heaping expanses of silt and river gravel spread for miles. Below the boundary, on the lower 40 mile-portion of the reservoir, water levels remain higher. Impacts are reduced.

This situation has been identified by the Canadian government as an issue to consider in negotiations. Active residents of the region are not sitting back. “We can’t all be on the negotiating team,” says Cranbrook resident Mario Scodellaro. “But we can pressure the government to do the right thing.”

Scodellaro knows a thing or two about that. He was a young man when the agreement was signed, and thought it wasn’t fair then. He has not stopped thinking about ways to make a difference.

A little over a year ago, he and another local resident, Ken Bettin, began asking themselves whether Canada could put a weir (a smaller water barrier) just above the boundary, to maintain a water level at 743 vertical metres above sea level, five metres below the maximum stated in the Treaty. Doing so, they believe, will allow stable reservoir levels, and yet still give the U.S. the flow they need for Libby Dam.

Of course, that would have U.S. consequences and would likely be traded for something else. The idea at this point is only one of many poker chips in the card game. Yet, the B.C. government has recently hired surveyors and engineers to complete a preliminary study. Businesses, the regional district and local politicians, including MP Rob Morrison, have caught on. Local talks are underway with the Waldo Stockbreeders Association and the Ktunaxa Nation.

Scodellaro turns 91 this year. I admire his tenacity and passion, and am grateful that he is still around. We all need elders to raise their voices to give us a sense of history.

Local author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes writes here once a month.

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