A turnout sufficient to fill the staff lounge at Selkirk College in Castlegar learned more about the Columbia River Treaty on February 21. Delivering a luncheon presentation to the 30 or so interested attendees was Chris Trumpy, Senior Economist with the B.C. Government’s Columbia River Treaty Review. The event was the latest in a series of similar functions staged by the Kootenay Association for Science and Technology (KAST).
The treaty has overseen the creation of a network of dams which has served the purpose of flood control on both sides of the border, along with hydro-power generation.
The international agreement represents diplomatic and engineering components that are equally massive.
The treaty was negotiated about 50 years ago and the reason it’s been receiving a spike in attention of late is because the first window of opportunity for cancelling the pact is due to close next year. That’s not to suggest that any such thing is likely to happen, just that written into the deal is the proviso that plenty of notice be given before either signatory takes such action.
Here’s the exact wording as quoted from Review literature:
“Either Canada or the U.S. can unilaterally terminate most of the provisions in the Columbia River Treaty anytime after September 16, 2024, providing at least ten years’ notice is given.”
No renewal of the agreement is required – it will continue in perpetuity as long as no action is taken to end it.
Making up the bulk of the related infrastructure are three dams in Canada: the Duncan; Arrow Lake (Hugh Keenleyside; and Mica dams constructed from 1967 to 1973, and the Libby Dam in Montana.
Some aspects of the system will continue even in the event of a treaty termination. Assured Annual Flood Control, for example a clause that changes in 2024 to “Called Upon” operation of Canadian storage space as may be needed by the United States for flood risk management.
The bi-lateral document is deep, detailed and fairly complex with impacts affecting a wide range of interests.
Said KAST Executive Director Kelvin Saldern, “If you look at the Columbia River Basin, not just in Canada but as well, into the ‘States, it’s a tremendously huge territory that affects the lives of many millions of people.”
Chris Trumpy, having given audio-visually enhanced overview of treaty-related topics, commented prior to heading for his return flight to Victoria.
“KAST has been running these environmental networking seminars and luncheons for about five years now with Selkirk College. They’re always well-attended. This one had a particularly high level of attendance, and a lot of interest from industry professionals. I think it’s because as we approach the potential notice date for cancellation, revisions or modifications to the treaty, people have a lot of interest as to what’s going on there. It has a huge impact… environmentally, socially and economically.”
A lot of attendees were students broadening their knowledge of the treaty issue as well as honing their networking chops.
Former Selkirk College student Eugene Voykin has a long standing interest in the treaty and in the river system itself.
He has a desire to do a Columbia River canoe trip from headwaters to mouth, and has conducted preliminary fact and opinion finding work along much of the river’s length.
“I think when you’re looking at something that’s so large… to please everybody is impossible,” said Voykin. “So I think it’s finding that balance between both sides and the balance between ecological needs and the need for hydro power… to kind of bridge the dialogue from not just the political side, but also from the people side.”
A consultant named Dave Diplock of Rossland-based Bear Environmental gave his opinion on the value of a session like the one held that day at Selkirk College.
“The treaty is probably one of the most significant things that can affect us locally in our lifetimes,” said Dipock. “This is going to set the framework for how the river will be managed for many years to come.”
More meetings and events are on the horizon, including a more detailed, technical forum set in the region for March 20, and others intended to take into account concerns from First Nations and other entities.
“It makes a big difference where you’re coming from,” concluded Trumpy, “whether you’re an industry or whether you’re a cottage owner… it’ll be interesting to see how it rolls out and how the government will take a stand because it does come down to a federal government initiative.”
The provincial government has plenty of treaty information available at gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty.