Columbia River Treaty negotiations

Dianne St. Jean
Kathy Eichenberger, Executive Director, Columbia River Treaty Review, gave updates on the negotiations and led discussions on key issues directly related to the CRT.
Kathy Eichenberger, Executive Director, Columbia River Treaty Review, gave updates on the negotiations and led discussions on key issues directly related to the CRT.
Dianne St. Jean photo

Input from the community is essential

On Monday, June 18, a small group from the community of Valemount gathered to listen to updates on the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) negotiations and to discuss key community interests and concerns.

The group consisted mostly of Village Mayor and Councillors, press and only a handful of interested individuals.

This was thought to be discouraging considering the importance of the topic, which touches on our water systems and the impacts related to those systems.

Presenters included Kathy Eichenberger (ED, Columbia River Treaty Review), Gary Ockenden and other advisors from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.

The Columbia River Treaty was originally established in 1964 between Canada and the United States regarding the Columbia River system (which happens to be the most dammed river in North America).

Most dams on the Columbia River system were built between the 1940s and 1980s, and are part of a coordinated water management system under that treaty, our area of concern being the Kinbasket Lake reservoir and Mica Dam.

The fundamentals of the Treaty were intended to create benefits to be shared equitably by both treaty partners.

However, aside from benefits, there are also impacts. The impacts to British Columbia alone include the submerging of 600 km2 of fertile land, the relocation of 2,300 people and the displacement of communities, the loss of First Nations cultural sites, as well as ecosystem impacts to fish and wildlife, air quality, and forestry, agriculture, and effects on transportation and tourism.

For example, the development of Kinbasket reservoir resulted in a loss of direct roadways and transport corridors between Revelstoke and Golden. The method of flooding left standing timber on the lake bottom, resulting in timber loss and heavy debris, although, according to Councillor Owen Torgerson, the amount of debris over the last several years has greatly decreased. However, timber from the lake is so impacted with silt, it is unusable.

Other impacts were diminished wildlife populations, the flooding of natural hot springs that were being used by locals, and poor recreational and boating opportunities created by varying water levels, which also result in exposure of silt beds during drawdowns. When winds pick up these silica deposits, they are carried right toward Valemount and pose a significant health risk to the community.

“The silica is said to be carcinogenic,” commented Mayor Jeannette Townsend during the discussion, with Councillor Torgerson adding that silicosis is one of the most painful of diseases.

Concerns such as these are the very reason why the CRT team is travelling to the different impacted communities seeking concerns and input regarding the treaty negotiations. These concerns in turn will be carried back to the Ministers responsible for the issues and will be reviewed for the negotiations.

“Each country is responsible to mitigate the impacts,” said Eichenberger.

It was a different world when the Treaty was first drawn up and signed, she continued. Since then fundamental changes and awareness have presented themselves, and raised issues that need to be addressed.

“With changes in the role of First Nations, ecological changes and development impacts, we realize we need to be flexible, we need to adapt quickly,” she said, what they refer to as adaptive management.

There was a comment regarding current trade discussions the United States is having in other areas and with other countries, and wondering if there might be any negative drawback in the present review.

“Every treaty is different,” responded Eichenberger, pointing out that in this regard there is strong cooperation between the two countries, nor any indication that those external trade issues will affect these treaty negotiations. 

On that note, though, she did point out the need for clarity of language in the negotiations between the two countries. For example, Canada’s reference to and definition of ecosystems is slightly different than that of the United States.

 “We need to understand the similarities and differences, and find common ground,” says Eichenberger, and also to understand that the experiences and impacts are not necessarily the same around the Columbia.

For example, the US Army Corp is highly concerned with flood control, especially with effects of climate change as there has been an increase in flash flooding and hurricane incidents in the southern areas.

Within the bi-lateral agreements, BC also has a privileged position and has become part of the negotiations simply because its communities are so affected.

Regarding the current treaty, there is much discussion about flooding control with a focus on the environment, especially salmon. Part of this is not just about the ecological side, but also in respect for the indigenous communities who view the salmon as an integral part of their culture spiritually.

And, there is also shifting values when it comes to the value of water itself, especially in the context of climate change.

Eichenberger commented that she sees the value of water as becoming much higher than the value of electricity in the future.

 “Anybody can create energy, we cannot create water.”

The basic topics covered included flood risk management, power generation and ecosystem issues and the need to reduce the negative impacts of the Treaty on residents and improve environmental and socio-economical conditions, including tourism.

During the latter part of the meeting those attending were asked if there were any topics that had not been brought up during presentation, and their top three priorities or key interests that they feel need to be brought to the Treaty negotiations.

A big question was on where the funds go and how their dispersal to each community is determined. The answer is that funds go into a General Revenue Fund.

It was commented that the financial benefits should be re-directed to communities that are most impacted, and more highly affected areas should be given more.

A better return on flood control and flow (Kinbasket reservoir) was also brought up which would have a direct effect on the recreational use of the lake in terms of increased opportunity for boating and fishing, etc. that would in turn have a positive effect on tourism.

Another issue raised and also of top priority is the need for cheaper power for all affected areas that do not have natural gas or some other alternate energy source. This brought up discussion of the use of wood burning, and the problem especially in Valemount with heavy smoke pollution during times of inversion. People burn wood because of the high cost of electricity and propane, but the behavior results in health risks.

One thing that was suggested is to look into the possibilities of developing our own utility, something that a number of municipalities have already successfully done. Of course there is optimism and hope for the successful development of geothermal power in this area.

The CRT committee is encouraging all residents to submit their concerns or ideas so they can be brought forward to the negotiating table. Either visit engage.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty, email columbiarivertreaty@gov.bc.ca or call (778) 698-7277. You can also follow Columbia River Treaty on facebook or twitter.