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
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.