Battle lines being drawn in diplomatic water wars

B.C. seeks to maintain 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty against U.S. interest to claw back payments

VANCOUVER — B.C. will take a stand on maintaining and modernizing the 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty against the position of American interests to claw back some of the generous payments that come back to the province under the water management deal.

BC is preparing for talks with U.S. on the Columbia River Treaty.
BC is preparing for talks with U.S. on the Columbia River Treaty.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett is scheduled to unveil B.C.’s official position today on keeping the treaty under its existing terms and laying out 14 principles on which the province sees room for “improving” the cross-border agreement to address interests that weren’t envisioned when it was first signed in 1964.

The treaty pays the province between $100 million and $300 million per year from electricity generated downstream of the border in exchange for building dams to control water upstream of the border to provide flood control.

It will stay in place indefinitely, unless one side serves notice by this September that it wants a new deal. In that case, the original treaty would expire in 2024, and in recent years U.S. interests have indicated the payments have become too rich.

“Their position is that the $100 million to $300 million per year is more than what they should pay,” Bennett said in an interview.

However, he argues that the U.S. isn’t paying for all of the benefits it receives outside of the deal’s basic flood-control measures, which is something that needs to be addressed.

Canada’s ambassador to the United States told Postmedia News last month that Canada must prepare for diplomatic water wars with the U.S. as demand on both sides of the border grows for the vital but limited resource, and there are signs that battle lines are being drawn already.

While the treaty is an international agreement between Canada and the U.S., the federal government has delegated responsibility for negotiations to B.C. with BC Hydro as its operating partner.


Facts on Columbia River Treaty as it nears the half-century mark:

• Amount of provincial revenues generated in last 15 years: over 3 billion.

• Average annual revenues for B.C.: $220 million.

• Percentage of B.C.’s electricity production provided by Columbia River: 40%.

• Percentage of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity production provided by Columbia River: 30%.

• Percentage of Columbia’s water volume from B.C.: 30%.

• Percentage of Columbia basin area in B.C.: 15%.

• Year that Canadian and U.S. governments asked the International Joint Commission to investigate potential for hydroelectric development and flood control on the Columbia River system: 1944.

• Date of treaty’s ratification: Sept. 16, 1964.

• Earliest year that changes to the treaty would take effect: 2024.

• Size of Columbia River: fourth-largest river in North America and largest hydroelectric generating capacity of any North American river.


On the American side, the U.S. State Department is the responsible authority but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are the treaty’s operating entities.

The U.S. position is essentially that the dams built on the Canadian side have been paid for.

And in a U.S. Senate committee hearing last November, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden argued that electricity ratepayers in the Northwest states would save hundreds of millions of dollars if the benefits were recalculated based on the electricity B.C. actually receives.

“Striking a new power-benefits-sharing deal with Canada based on the actual benefits to both nations is the way to proceed,” Wyden told the committee.

Stephen Oliver, vice-president of Bonneville Power and coordinator of the treaty review for the U.S. side, told the committee: “We’re presently paying about 90 per cent more than we should be.”

However, Bennett countered that the U.S. receives more benefits than are accounted for under the original terms of the treaty, which are items that B.C. would like to discuss with its American counterparts in an agreement to keep the treaty.

Bennett said that beyond basic flood control, B.C. has cooperated with American agencies to coordinate water releases to provide fish flows for endangered salmon, for recreational use and for irrigation that supports a lucrative agricultural and winery industry downstream that weren’t part of the original deal.

“They have come to rely on the flows of water that have been reasonably predictable,” Bennett said, “and they’ve built their economy based on that, so it’s our position they’re benefiting considerably more than what is the value of the downstream power benefits they pay back to us.”

There are also Aboriginal and conservation groups that want to use the Columbia River Treaty to reopen discussions about restoring salmon runs in the upper Columbia system that were wiped out with the construction of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam, which was completed in 1942.

Bonneville Power and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both stated that the U.S. should pursue a joint effort with Canada to investigate the possibility of restoring salmon passage and if warranted pursue implementation, with costs to be shared.

Bonneville Power reports that it spends $750 million per year mitigating the impact of its dams on fish and wildlife.

However, that is another non-starter for B.C., which argues that the since the dam was built 26 years before the treaty was negotiated, it shouldn’t be dragged into the treaty.

“It is certainly a legitimate discussion for Canada to have within Canada,” Bennett said about the issue of salmon restoration, “and for the U.S. to have a discussion in the U.S., but it’s not a Columbia River Treaty discussion.”

Fears of possible water shortages in the U.S. have grown in recent years with more than half of all states anticipate experiencing water shortages even under non-drought conditions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bennett added that B.C. has ecological issues it wants to address and has included incorporating adaptation to climate change as a principle for future negotiations. B.C. must also include consultation with First Nations as part of its role in the talks.

“We’ll wait for the U.S. State Department to state its final position, and hopefully it’s a matter of sitting down over the next year or two, or however long it takes, to figure out how we can perhaps tweak the treaty in a way that benefits us all.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *