Comprehensive public review of the Columbia River Treaty to be held next year

MLA Norm Macdonald (left) talks with MP David Wilks at a Columbia Basin Trust meeting about the Columbia River Treaty process, which was held in Revelstoke on Monday. David F. Rooney photo

By David F. Rooney

The federal government “will stay out” of the Columbia River Treaty and support the province of BC’s negotiations with the US over the Columbia River Treaty, MP David Wilks said at a public information workshop on the treaty.

“The federal government’s position is it would support the province unless there’s a huge change proposed to the agreement,” the Conservative MP said at the meeting, sponsored by the Columbia Basin Trust. “The federal government will stay out of it.”

That means BC has to be on its toes. The treaty was signed in 1964 and  while it has no expiry date, it does have a minimum length of 60 years, which will be met on September 16,  2024. Either country has a 10-year window to renegotiate or terminate the treaty starting in 2014. The original agreement allows either country to renegotiate all or part of the treaty with 10 years notice. If one country decides to terminate its participation in the treaty that termination will not take affect until 10 years after the date of notice.

Ten years? What’s the fuss?

Well, there’s a lot of money involved. In return for building three major dams — the Hugh Keenleyside, Mica and Duncan Dams — to stop the floods that periodically devastated farms and towns along the US portion of the river, BC receives $150 million to $300 million a year from sales of hydroelectric power generated by US dams.

While neither country has yet made a decision about the treaty’s future, both are now exploring their options and our American cousins across the line are, as Wilk put it, “way ahead of us.”

Having said that, though, the residents of the Canadian portion of the Basin now have a chance to help set policy.

“Knowledge is power and that’s what this evening is all about,” Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald told the nearly 100 people who attended the session at the Community Centre. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to get informed… about a process we have to control.”

People in the Canadian portion of the Basin have for decades lived with the consequences of the treaty. Farms, villages and towns were burned and drowned beneath the reservoirs created when the dams were built, creating a legacy of bitterness that remains to this day.

“We didnb;t have any say at all when they negotiated the deal,” noted CSRD Area B Director Loni Parker.

Conscious of the latent anger that resides within many life-long Basin residents, Mayor David Raven called on participants to control it.

“What I would ask is you not dwell on the bad parts but look forward to the good things,” he said.

And there have been “good things” emanating from the treaty. The money earned by the province, the eventual establishment of the Columbia Basin Trust which has been a real boon to people in our region, new ways of looking at community social and economic development and more…

Public input is crucial if the negotiations are to yield an outcome favourable to the men and women who live in the Columbia Basin on both sides of the border. That doesn’t mean politicians won’t be involved. They will because, as the CBT’s Kindy Gosal mentioned, the outcome of the negotiations “will be decided at the political level.”

Although this meeting was only a couple of hours long, Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of the provincial government’s Columbia River Treaty Review, said “we’re going to be c oming to the Basin for a comprehensive public consultation probably in the late spring of next year.”