From its genesis in British Columbia, the Columbia River flows past Wenatchee, the Tri-Cities, Washougal, Camas and dozens of other cities before passing Vancouver’s doorstep. Along the way, it traverses a series of dams and accepts offerings from the Pend Oreille, Spokane, Snake and Willamette rivers, to name a few.
The result is an awesome spectacle of nature, one that is easily taken for granted when you witness it on a daily basis. At peak flow as it passed Vancouver on Wednesday, the river carried enough water every second to fill almost two Olympic swimming pools. At this time of year, the Columbia discharges enough water on a daily basis to cover Clark and Multnomah counties to a depth of more than 16 inches.
But enough of the science lesson; the point is to highlight the importance of the Columbia River Treaty, which is the subject of high-level negotiations again this week. Representatives of federal, provincial and tribal governments are meeting in Seattle to discuss the pact, which was first signed in 1961.
The treaty called for construction and management of four upper-river dams, including three in British Columbia, to provide downstream flood control and electricity production. In return, the Canadian Entitlement provides the British Columbia government with hydroelectricity worth more than $300 million a year.
Much has changed over the past six decades. While negotiators debate a renewal of the treaty, provisions addressing river health — particularly the impact of climate change — should be considered.
As Joseph Bogaard and Martin Carver wrote this week in an opinion piece for The Seattle Times: “Taking this step would make the treaty a tool to restore and sustain the well-being of the Columbia River and its major sub-basins and to integrate river health with hydropower and flood protection.” Bogaard is with the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in Seattle, and Carver is with the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative in Canada.
That is a good idea; but the risk is that a renewed treaty could become so complex as to undermine negotiations. Flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric production must remain the primary duties of the collaboration between the United States and western Canada, bolstering the economy and the livability throughout a river basin that is roughly the size of Texas.
As one expert once explained to The Columbian, the treaty is “the most important economic driver in the Northwest that nobody has ever heard of.” Altering that can have consequences for anybody who lives in a flood plain or pays an electricity bill in Clark County — which means just about all of us.
Such universal importance calls for attention from Washington, D.C. In 2021, a group of Northwest lawmakers wrote to the Biden administration: “We stress the need for a top-level White House led strategy for the Treaty negotiations, as well as regular substantive updates to Members of Congress on the status of negotiations and estimated funding needs.”
That need remains as negotiations resume with a deadline looming. Barring an updated agreement, the treaty will revert to a “called-upon,” or less defined, arrangement in September 2024.
Negotiations to update the Columbia River Treaty offer a prime opportunity to address modern environmental realities. But the primary goal is to provide flood control and economic benefits along the massive river that abuts Vancouver.