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Could water storage become the Ace in B.C.’s negotiating game?

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
May 3rd, 2015

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, is forthcoming 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 help The Nelson Daily readers understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.

Today Pearkes writes about the importance of water storage and how it all could play out in Columbia River Treaty talks between Canada/BC and the United States.

On the American side, there appears to be some degree of recent agitation regarding the how’s and when’s of Columbia River Treaty (CRT) re-negotiations. 

The deadline has now passed to have a new treaty seamlessly replace an old treaty, at least with regards to flood control. Either side needed to notify the other about their intent by autumn 2014 for that to happen.

Neither one did. 

After that, there appeared to be a sort of winter freeze-up, without lots of action or announcement.  But recently, in keeping with the season, fresh interest in treaty re-negotiation has sprung up again, especially on the American side, with various regional interests pressing the U.S. state department to place the treaty issue at or at least near the top of the list for the Obama administration.

Essentially, the U.S. regional position is to add a third element to the way the river is managed, broadening water values from the two-part flood control and hydro-electric production to what is widely being referred to as “ecosystem function.”

Canada and B.C., for their parts, are in a wait and see mode fitting for the upstream country.  This sort of Columbia River dynamic – Americans agitating, Canadians waiting and seeing – dates back to the late 1930s, when B.C.’s then-premier Duff Patullo wrote (more than once) to then-prime minister MacKenzie King about the possibility of developing hydro-electric systems on the Columbia River. 

Pattullo had been observing the development of Grand Coulee dam and wondered if the same sort of water-miracle could be pulled off in B.C.

King’s reply? It would be better to wait. Wait for the Americans to come to Canada.

That is exactly what happened, though it took a major flood in 1948 to finally force an imperative. I wonder whether or not things are setting up to happen the same way again. This could be a clever strategy on the part of the B.C. government to wait until the other side plays the first hand. It could also be a stance embedded in an age-old dynamic between the two countries.

The question is: what will be the imperative this time?

My bet is fish. More specifically, salmon.

For the past several decades, climate change has had an increasingly noticeable effect on the dynamics of water flow throughout the Columbia Basin. This year, Washington state experienced its warmest winter on record. 

This means less snow, and in summer, much less water will be entering the system below the international boundary. That places more value on the water entering the system above the boundary. 

Snowpack levels in the uppermost basin hover closer to normal. In southeastern B.C, some forecasts place its accumulation at around 90-100% of normal.

It took me years to understand the complex and powerful dynamic in the U.S. portion of the Columbia with regards to salmon and electricity.  Columbia River salmon are protected by law under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  This act, unlike the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA), has been tested in the courts many times, strengthening its influence.  Each year, American power producers sacrifice the production of electricity in order to provide some of the spring flows the river needs to transport salmon fry to the ocean.

In a typical year, Canada’s contribution to the Columbia’s total flow hovers around 35-40%.  In drought years, it can rise to 50%. A river flowing through a drought-stricken Columbia Plateau needs to get its fish-flows from somewhere.  

The original intent of the water storage system embedded in the treaty was to protect human property and provide abundant, inexpensive electricity for industrial resource extraction and urban growth. 

A lot has changed in 50 years.  The climate is warmer and dryer.  Public interest in a broader set of values has increased.  Tribal people have fought hard to have influence in the debate over how the fish central to their traditions are managed.

Canadian water storage could become an Ace of Spades in B.C.’s negotiating game, the card that will get the process going. 

The deuce, if you will, could be the weather and its impact on the entire river system.

See previous column on Kootenay Lake Fish Stocks.

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