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OPINION: Arrow Lakes impacts top of mind in Columbia River Treaty negotiations

Kathy Eichenberger is the B.C. lead for the Canadian delegation on the Columbia River Treaty talks
Stumps from the time of the creation of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir in 1968 are visible at the McDonald Creek Provincial Park beach. Photo: Betsy Kline

Kathy Eichenberger

As British Columbia’s lead in negotiations with the United States to modernize the Columbia River Treaty, I would like to comment on the difficult conditions in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir this year.

My perspective comes from having lived in the West Kootenay for 10 years, assuming several provincial environmental roles in the region and, for the past 12 years, as executive director of the Provincial Columbia River Treaty team, working to create a modern treaty that better reflects the needs and interests of the B.C. Columbia Basin.

For the past five years, the Canadian negotiating team, which includes representatives of B.C., Global Affairs Canada, the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has been meeting with the U.S. delegation to significantly improve on the current Columbia River Treaty that was established 60 years ago. It is behind the times and in need of renewal. It’s worth noting that these cross-border discussions are non-partisan, and there are no elected officials at the negotiating table.

The Canadian negotiation delegation is acutely aware of the low water levels on Arrow Lakes Reservoir this year and the devastating impact this is having on communities, wildlife habitat, fish populations, tourism and recreation. I have spent much time around this beautiful area and can appreciate how hard it is for residents to experience this devastation. We have seen photos and read personal accounts of stranded and dead fish, exposed debris, drawn-down beaches, marooned boats and more, and we have shared this with our U.S. counterparts so they may have a clearer understanding of our positions.

I know people have heard that there are two main factors affecting water levels this summer. One is the lack of snowmelt and rain due to drought conditions since last fall that has significantly reduced the amount of water flowing into Arrow Lakes Reservoir. The second is that the Columbia River Treaty requires B.C. to provide a certain volume of water to the United States at specific times of the year for flood-risk management purposes and downstream hydropower generation. This last requirement being the factor that contributed to the severe drafting (water moving out of the reservoir) this summer. This is all the more painful when we observe high water levels just across the border.

While we can’t control the weather or stop the drought, we are strongly advocating for improvements in the treaty to reduce these types of impacts in the future.

Those who have been following this process will know that a key goal for the Canadian negotiating team is to gain additional flexibility for how B.C. may unilaterally operate its treaty dams (the Hugh L. Keenleyside, Duncan and Mica dams). This would allow us to adjust operations to support ecosystems, Indigenous cultural values, and socio-economic interests, such as recreation and tourism. There is significant research and river management scenario modelling underway, led by the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations and including local governments, that is informing how best to use our new flexibility. Part of that research includes looking at minimum elevations, particularly during the summer months, on Arrow Lakes Reservoir.

Unfortunately, this won’t change the situation this year. Until a modernized Columbia River Treaty is in place, we must continue to meet our legal treaty requirements.

My provincial treaty team and I have been collaborating with the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations and speaking with local governments and residents in the basin since 2012 to learn what changes people want to see. Those discussions in Nakusp, Fauquier, Burton, Castlegar, Trail, Revelstoke and other locations around Arrow Lakes have emphasized how the current Columbia River Treaty affects beach and boating access, tourism draw, businesses and the region’s critical ecosystems. All the input we have received (and continue to receive) is guiding our efforts to ensure a modernized treaty truly reflects what we have heard. Before any agreement is finalized, we will come back to the people of the basin again to explain what is being proposed and seek feedback.

I understand how frustrating it is to know things cannot change immediately, but I want to make it clear that the Canadian negotiating team is doing everything it can to ensure a modernized treaty better supports the people, communities and ecosystems of the basin and mitigates situations like the one we are seeing at Arrow Lakes Reservoir in the future.

There is much more information available about the Columbia River Treaty and our work on the Province of B.C. Columbia River Treaty website at

My team and I encourage you to send us any questions or comments by emailing us at

Kathy Eichenberger is Executive director, Columbia River Treaty, and B.C. lead, Canadian Negotiation Delegation

About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

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