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River Talks — Blaming Americans? Not so fast in this case

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.

Today the Pearkes differs with an opinion piece that blames the Americans.

A few weeks ago, Black Press columnist Tom Fletcher published a lively commentary about the Columbia River Treaty in which he pointed the finger squarely at Americans for 1) the loss of ocean salmon to the upper Columbia region, and 2) the flooding and displacement of over 2,000 people from the Arrow Lakes valley and the associated ecosystem losses from the three “Treaty” projects and Libby Dam in Montana. 

It’s great to hear a high-profile journalist living in one of B.C.’s urban centers on the faraway west coast getting hot under the collar about our region’s social, economic and ecological struggles in the long aftermath of the CRT.  But I can’t resist weighing in with a little bit of history to correct any ideas that the Americans were the ‘big, bad wolf’ of the CRT. 

Far from the case.

Salmon losses first and foremost:  In the 1930s, during construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the mid-Columbia, Americans wrote to Canada to see if their neighbour had any specific interests in the salmon that would be blocked from spawning grounds by the new dam.  

Canada’s reply? 

No interest in those fish. Not part of a Canadian  commercial fishery. 

This is an important moment in history.  Had the federal government said hey hold on a minute! Get your hands off our fish! – or something like that, things might have been different.  Americans had discussed a fish ladder at Grand Coulee.  Without any real pressure to construct it, however, they were not eager to spend the money, especially in the Depression era.

In one stroke, Canada ended an important fishery of Chinook, coho, sockeye and steelhead.  Blame the Americans?  Nope. Not on that one.

Flooding out Canadians in the Arrow Lakes and Kootenay River valleys: The CRT authorized the construction of three storage dams in Canada (High Arrow, Duncan and Mica) and gave the option of one in Montana (Libby). 

By far and away the most destructive of the three for people was High Arrow, followed by Libby.  The Duncan and Mica had less significant losses in terms of human population, but unquantifiable losses for wildlife and fish. 

Since Mr. Fletcher focused on losses from High Arrow in his column, let’s look specifically at that project.

A close review of history shows that between the 1961 signing (and immediate ratification by the U.S.), and the ratification of the treaty by Canada three years later, a great deal of Canadian controversy and a few national elections almost scuttled the deal. 

Many Canadians were opposed to the treaty.  Opposition parties pressured the minority Conservatives to reconsider.  Liberal Lester Pearson even made an election promise to re-negotiate.

Then, an engineer from Trail, B.C. named Richard Deane put forward a very viable alternative that would have saved the Arrow Lakes valley residents and their farmland and still accomplished many of the treaty’s flood control goals and financial objectives at a considerably lower social, economic and economic cost. 

This Conservation Plan was passed over by the elected Canadian government because it was slightly less lucrative financially in terms of the lump sum paid for 30 years of downstream benefits.

A close review of the federal policy history around the CRT (which is a great  cure for insomnia if anyone is suffering out there!) shows that federal Canadian bureaucrats spent 1962-63 building an intricate Canadian rationale for flooding the Arrow Lakes valley. Ironically, Americans were, at the time, getting tired of waiting for Canada to ratify and considering backing out. 

Lots of Canadians were questioning the wisdom of keeping the deal alive, too.

Probably the most important political lesson in all of this for our next round of negotiations is to consult with the local people.   Kudos to the provincial government  for recently forming a 37-member committee that is doing just that.   

Better even than a committee would be to have any and all politicians, policy experts and others involved from both countries walk a mile across the silt in the Arrow Lakes, Duncan, or Kootenay River valleys. While they walk, they can listen to the local people before they return to the boardroom to decide what is best.    

See the last column here.

See previous columns here.