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River Talk: Important moment of change for Columbia River Treaty

Just after Labour Day, the U.S. State Department hosted a Town Hall Meeting in Portland, Oregon — Photo courtesy U.S.Army Corps of Engineers

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has been researching and writing about the history and politics of water in the upper Columbia Basin since 2005. 

Her book on the Columbia River Treaty, A River Captured, which can be purchased on Amazon was released in 2016. Recently, her travelling exhibit on the Columbia River Treaty, curated for Touchstones Nelson, won a national award from the Canadian Museum Association.

Pearkes has agreed to assist The Nelson Daily readers to understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.

It’s time to start thinking like a fish.

Just after Labour Day, the U.S. State Department hosted a Town Hall Meeting in Portland, Oregon.  Coordinated by Jill Smail, the lead American negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty, the evening included several impassioned presentations. I listened in by phone, as a part of my ongoing effort to witness the unfolding of treaty negotiations, and to keep people in the upper watershed informed about discussions occurring in other parts of the basin.

What were Portland residents so passionate about?  Two issues, primarily. 1. Flood control. 2. Restoring ecosystem values to the river.

A key principle of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty and the three dams the treaty required Canada to construct: water storage to protect Portland and other urban areas from flooding. The U.S. paid Canada $69 million (in Canadian dollars) for that service, for 60 years, to 2024.  Even in today’s dollars (around $500 million) that is a sure bargain.

The 1961 treaty called for Canada to provide that flood control “in perpetuity,” which means: forever.  After a great deal of political controversy in Canada over what many Canadians considered to be a giveaway, the federal government added a protocol to the treaty that changed forever to 60 years. That democratic moment helped clear the way for ratification in 1964. 

That limiting of flood control to 60 years plays out now.

Americans speaking at the meeting in Portland had audible passion and some degree of fear in their voices when they spoke of what might happen if the U.S. did not bargain for the same sort of flood control that the treaty has provided thus far.  The Mayor of Portland, the state of Oregon’s governor, and many individuals representing the operation of municipal “drainage districts” and shipping ports spoke of the commercial value of Portland’s historic flood plain.

To name a few: Portland International Airport; the ports of Portland, Astoria, Vancouver and other lower Columbia River cities; a rail system, and the intersection of Interstates 5 and 84. Those listening heard about the billions of dollars of commerce, 5.3 billion dollars of assessed real estate values in one drainage district alone, five marine terminals and a projected 370,000 new jobs by 2040.

One speaker at the meeting also described the 1948 flood and the loss of the city of Vanport, Oregon (adjacent to Portland). She reminded the U.S. negotiator that people died in that flood. What the speaker did not mention was that U.S. officials botched a clear and timely evacuation order, and that inexpensive U.S. wartime housing had been constructed on flood plain land without much thought to the security of the railway dike that protected it.  

For a portion of the evening, it appeared that the only way to avert complete destruction of Portland’s way of life was to receive assurances from Canada that flood control would continue exactly as it had. Of course, listing the economic value of this activity at the river’s mouth also begs the question: What is flood control worth to the U.S. government today? And, of course, Who will pay?

The Columbia River Treaty is definitely about money, but it is also about our values. What is the “value” of Canada continuing with that flood control? Assurances for Portland’s safety have long been carried on the back of the upper Columbia River’s ecosystems, indigenous people, cultural history, and lost farmland. No one at the meeting spoke about that.   If Canada will continue to provide flood control, how much of the money that changes hands will come to this region, to mitigate losses? Is there another form of exchange, other than money?

The meeting also gave voice to individuals who spoke of the grave ecosystem losses to the river from headwaters to sea as a result of a tightly controlled regime. People mentioned the desire for salmon passage around Grand Coulee Dam, the need to harmonize our relationship with natural systems, to help the non-human residents such as orcas, salmon, lamprey and others to find more prosperity.

The key to river restoration, these speakers said, lies in an increase in velocity of stream flows.  In other words: get the water moving. How can the negotiators reconcile the very real fears about flood, with a river’s natural desire to flow and be more hospitable to fish and shoreline habitats, is not yet evident.

The next round of negotiations will take place in Portland, on Oct. 17-18. If upper Columbia residents have an opinion, why not a bi-national email to the American side?  ColumbiaRiverTreaty@state.gov.  

We are at an important moment of change in how we view the Columbia River and its gifts.