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Deadlines and commitments — September, 2014?

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
March 9th, 2014

Since 2005, Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has researched and explored the natural and human history of the rivers of the upper Columbia River Basin. 

She speaks frequently at conferences and symposia throughout the Basin on the history of the Columbia River Treaty and its effects on Basin residents.  She has recently completed a manuscript titled A River Captured – history and hydro-electricity in the upper Columbia Basin

An American by birth, Pearkes has been a resident of Canada since 1985 and Nelson since 1994. She has written many articles and several books that explore place and its cultural meaning. 

The Geography of Memory, a history of the landscape and indigenous people of the upper Columbia watershed published in 2002, remains a Kootenay classic.

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


Some people are very surprised when they actually read the Columbia River Treaty (CRT).  Just a few pages? In efficient fashion, with its clear deadlines and measurements, this brief document is in some ways as rigid as concrete.  But its open-ended qualifiers can also make it as slippery as water. 

Signed in 1961 and ratified immediately by the U.S., the CRT took three more years to ratify in Canada, in part due to public dissatisfaction over a perceived (or was it actual?) ‘giveaway’ of Canadian water, and in part due to a disagreement between the federal and provincial governments over financing. 

The 1964 ratification changed the 1961 version in a few important ways:  It added some specific “protocols” to satisfy the political discord in Canada and it did so without re-entering diplomatic re-negotiation.

Some CRT concrete details: The US promised to pay Canada a 50% entitlement of down stream benefits realized by water storage. These benefits would be paid in the form of electricity, (raw power), not money.  The CRT also gave the U.S. the right to build Libby Dam and permanently controlled Canada’s ability to divert all but a small amount of the Kootenay River’s upstream flow before it reached Libby Dam. 

Tit for tat?  Maybe….. 

The CRT rules for diversion went beyond earlier principles from the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and, as discussed in the last column, greatly displeased the Canadian water czar, General MacNaughton. He believed in river sovereignty and wanted control of the (Canadian) Kootenay River.

More promises: Americans could build Libby but had to announce their intent ahead of time. Yes, Canada could be paid the first 30-years of downstream benefits in a lump sum up front to finance construction of three “treaty” dams, but the country had to abide by firm deadlines (and bonuses for early completion). 

There were more deadlines, and some qualifiers. Here comes the slippery water:

Flood control involved a $69-plus million one-time payment by the U.S. to Canada —  for 60 years.  After Sept., 2024, if no other subsequent agreement has been reached, the two countries will automatically revert to ad hoc flood control.  This apparently means that the U.S. will be required to make full use of its own reservoir systems for flood management before calling upon Canada for any additional help.  For the U.S., this could have significant environmental and economic implications.

The CRT also spells out how water flows across the boundary to maximize power generation on U.S. dams.  Now deadlines and end dates get even trickier.  The part of the treaty that governs water flow across the boundary does not actually have an expiration date.

Either country can serve 10 year’s notice to the other country of unilateral termination of principles or clauses in the CRT related to water flow except for these: called upon flood control, the specified rate of diversion of the Kootenay, and the coordination of flows for Libby Dam. 

Intent to terminate could trigger a re-negotiation process. The first possible date for the 10-year notice period is 50 years after the ratification.  That means September, 2014.  The earliest notice for changes to water management governed by the CRT would take effect in September 2024. 

You may have had to re-read these last few paragraphs (or maybe even the entire column) more than once and you won’t be alone. There is no expiry date for the CRT.  Except for flood control.  The CRT goes on forever.  Unless someone wants it to stop.  There are only more questions:

Will either country actually serve notice on the other to terminate, and if so, when?  Is 50% too high a value to place on the Canadian Entitlement?  What is 60 more years of flood control worth?  Could a new treaty include salmon restoration?  Have the people (and wildlife) of this region been properly compensated for losses suffered?

Stay tuned….


See column one

See column two

See column three

Categories: Op/Ed

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