Renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty, six decades later

How will bolstered support for tribal sovereignty and the environment change the U.S.-Canada agreement?

 

Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

On Memorial Day 1948, as Oregonians traveled home from holidays on the coast and the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia River breached a dike at Vanport, an industrial suburb north of Portland. Swollen by abnormally deep snowfall, rapid melting and region-wide rainstorms, the river submerged the town, displacing some 18,000 residents (one-third of them African American), killing at least 51 and damaging property valued at more than $100 million. 

In addition to those immediate, devastating effects, the Vanport Flood also catalyzed changes in international relations in the Columbia River Basin — an area roughly the size of France — hastening plans to build three flood-control dams in Canada and authorizing another in the United States. Those projects were codified in the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, in 1961. 

Adding ecosystem function as a pillar of the Columbia River Treaty during renegotiations could help address the environmental harms wrought by Grand Coulee Dam and other dams.
Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

Now, with parts of the treaty due to expire in five years, the two countries are renegotiating it. But the political landscape has vastly changed since 1961. The original treaty was implemented before the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act and a host of legal shifts that bolstered Indigenous rights in both countries, including 1974’s Boldt Decision, which affirmed Pacific Northwest tribal nations’ right to co-manage salmon. These hallmarks of change emphasize the need to include environmental protection and equity in an updated treaty. 

Over its 1,243-mile course to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River squeezes through several narrow spots, ideal for hydropower generation. In 1927, Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey American river basins and create plans to fully exploit their power potential via dams that would also offer navigation, irrigation and flood-control benefits. The Corps’ Columbia River and Its Minor Tributaries, published following the directive, forecast a future river full of dams, capturing energy and transmitting it through wires to light homes and power industries throughout the Northwest.

The first dam across the Columbia River, completed in 1933, was a small, private one, a puny preview of what would soon transform the basin: behemoths like Bonneville Dam in 1938 and Grand Coulee Dam in 1942. But there were problems: Lacking fish ladders, Grand Coulee prevented salmon and steelhead from migrating hundreds of miles up the Columbia and its tributaries, including into British Columbia. It also flooded 21,000 acres of the Colville Reservation. Effects of this inundation were multifold and tragic, according to former Tribal Judge Mary L. Pearson. The Bureau of Reclamation waited too long to relocate more than a thousand graves, and many of them were flooded. Compounding this cultural tragedy, the reservoir ruined important hunting, farming and gathering spots. It was a multi-pronged attack against Native nations’ sovereignty and cultural foundations.

Then, the 1948 Vanport disaster accelerated regional and international discussions on how to control unruly rivers, spurring the signing of the Columbia River Treaty, which went into effect in 1964. It specified that Canada’s new dams would hold back 15.5 million acre-feet of water. In exchange, the United States secured flood control, paid just shy of $65 million and agreed to send a share of the hydropower generated south of the border to Canada.

The treaty emerged from the belief that the economic and social benefits of dam-building outweighed any ecological and cultural losses, regardless of the harm produced. But today’s societal values around acceptable tradeoffs have begun to transform. 

The U.S. and Canada excluded Indigenous peoples from the negotiating table the first time around. Since then, tribal nations have organized politically and developed crucial organizations within the basin, including the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Upper Columbia United Tribes. Dozens of tribal nations are influencing the renegotiations — attending meetings, publishing position papers and remaining present. Sort of. Despite asking for tribes’ input and their central role as co-managers of the region’s fisheries, American negotiators have excluded them from any official status, while Canadians have extended official observer status to only three First Nations. These sovereign Indigenous nations bring to today’s negotiations a deeper history with the river than either of the nations renegotiating the treaty, and they express that history through distinct values and goals. For instance, they are exploring ways to restore fish runs above the dams, proof that greater involvement produces better ideas and results.

Environmental values and laws have also been revolutionized since the original treaty was signed. Today, for example, federal laws make it much harder to build a dam or highway that eradicates a species or excludes stakeholders. And fewer Americans or Canadians would dismiss social or ecological costs as easily as they did two generations ago. Consequently, in 2013, the treaty’s managing U.S. entity, Bonneville Power Administration, recommended adding ecosystem functioning as a third treaty purpose, alongside flood control and hydropower. But Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho — chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, through which any treaty must pass before ratification — has insisted ecosystem function could jeopardize Idaho’s sovereignty over its water and will not support that measure. Still, widespread public concern about salmon and climate change may not be easy to ignore in the 21st century. 

When the Army Corps produced its plan for the basin and the negotiators first signed the treaty, the concerns were floods and lightbulbs, not fish and tribal sovereignty. Those blueprints were shot through with oversights. More people involved today will complicate diplomacy, and changing values will challenge the management of this massively complex river system. Yet for the sake of communities and places, nothing else will suffice.

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the U.S. agreed to send hydropower to Canada, rather than the reverse, under the terms of the Columbia River Treaty.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...