Update on CELP’s work to Modernize the Columbia River Treaty

by John Osborn, MD

CELP Board President

Protecting Columbia River flows is an important and longstanding part of CELP’s mission.  From our 2000 publication of “Columbia River Vision” and petition for instream flow rulemaking, to our 2014 appeal of the Kennewick Hospital/Easterday water right (challenging issuance of a large new water right without instream flow conditions), the Columbia River has been a key part of CELP’s work for many years.

Two years ago, CELP added a new item to our Columbia River portfolio when we began work in support of Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations on modernizing the Columbia River Treaty. The Treaty is an agreement between the U.S. and Canada to manage the river to maximize hydropower production and flood control. The terms of the Treaty change in 2024 and this year the two nations are evaluating whether to negotiate to modernize the Treaty. A foremost concern is how to incorporate a new purpose into the Treaty:  improvements in ecosystem function. For more information about the basics, see CELP’s Columbia River Treaty page.

In April 2013, CELP and Save Our Wild Salmon encouraged the Columbia River Tribes and conservation groups to gather in Portland to coordinate strategy in the United States. Out of that meeting, conservation groups formed the Columbia River Treaty Conservation Caucus. Caucus members began work with Canadian groups and citizens to begin building an international alliance for treaty reform. This year, CELP co-sponsored a conference in Spokane on ethics and the treaty. In late May, on behalf of CELP, I met with the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. to encourage treaty reforms. Below is a summary of the Declaration that issued from Gonzaga conference, followed by an update on Treaty status.

Kettle Falls

Kettle Falls was an important salmon fishing site on the Columbia River, and a place of great sustenance for indigenous people: Lakes People, Okanagans, Flatheads, Spokanes, Kalispells, Coeur d’Alenes, Sanpoils, Wenatchees, Entiats, interior Salish-speaking people, and others. In 1940 Grand Coulee dam permanently flooded Kettle Falls. CELP is joining with Tribes, First Nations, and others to return salmon to the Upper Columbia River.
Photo Credit: Spokane Camera Club

Declaration calls for modernizing Columbia River Treaty to right historic wrongs, advance stewardship.

On May 13 people gathered at Gonzaga University in Spokane from around the Columbia Basin to attend a CELP-sponsored conference, Ethics & the Treaty:  Righting Historic Wrongs.  Participants heard first-hand accounts of terrible losses suffered by indigenous people as a result of dam-building on the Columbia River, and approved a Declaration calling on Canada and the United States for specific actions to right historic wrongs and achieve stewardship in managing the Columbia River.

Ethics & the Treaty presenters included Roman Catholic Bishop William Skylstad, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells, Okanagan Nation Alliance executive director Pauline Terbasket, Upper Columbia United Tribes executive director D.R. Michel, and many indigenous voices.  (Click here to watch a short film from the Gonzaga Conference.)

The Declaration notes that rights and management authorities of the Columbia Basin tribes in the U.S. and the First Nations in Canada were ignored in the Treaty ratified in 1964.   Dams, including those built as a part of Treaty implementation, inflicted epic damage to the Columbia River and indigenous people who depended on native fish and wildlife.  The trust obligations of the U.S. and Canada to ensure healthy, sustainable populations of salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, bull trout and other native fish and wildlife, their habitats, and other cultural resources within the Columbia River Basin, were not provided for in the Treaty.  Indeed, Tribes and First Nations were not even consulted during its negotiation in the 1960s.

In responding to the ethical breaches of the 1964 Treaty, the Declaration on Ethics and modernizing the Columbia River Treaty recognizes the Columbia River Pastoral Letter, authored by the bishops of the international watershed, as a template for decision-makers in both nations as they consider the moral dimensions of Treaty re-negotiations.

The Declaration sets forth eight principles for modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.

  • Respect the rights, dignity and traditions of the Columbia Basin tribes and First Nations by including them in the implementation and management of the Treaty.
  • Include healthy ecosystem function as an equal purpose of the Treaty.
  • Achieve balance among river uses for hydroelectric power production, coordinated flood risk management, and healthy waters and flows that provide for abundant and sustainable native fish and wildlife populations.
  • Develop flow and water management operations to help people, native species, and entire ecosystems withstand climate change.
  • Provide for ecosystem management of the region while protecting other river uses, including tribal commercial, and tribal ceremonial and subsistence activities.
  • Engage local communities in a meaningful manner that is transparent and inclusive during renegotiation and future management of the Treaty.
  • Address economic and environmental justice for the poor along with other aspects of economic development.
  • Restore anadromous and resident fish passage to all historical locations throughout the Columbia River basin, including Chief Joseph, Grand Coulee, Hugh Keenleyside, Brilliant, and Waneta dams.

The conference was hosted by Gonzaga University’s Political Science Department, Native American Studies, and Environmental Studies, held in Spokane on May 13.


Status of Treaty Negotiations

The U.S. State Department is expected to announce the United States’ negotiating position on the Columbia River Treaty later in 2014.  Federal agencies have recommended that the United States and Canada “develop a modernized framework for the Treaty that ensures a more resilient and healthy ecosystem-based function throughout the Columbia River Basin while maintaining an acceptable level of flood risk and assuring reliable and economic hydropower benefits.”  All four Northwest states, 15 Columbia Basin tribes, fishermen and environmentalists support that recommendation.

In March, British Columbia released its draft recommendation that the Treaty be renewed and that changes occur within the existing framework.  The B.C. Province holds that ecosystem values are currently and should continue to be an important consideration, as well as adaptation to climate change, in Treaty planning and implementation.  The federal government in Ottawa has not yet announced Canada’s position.

Over the coming year, CELP will continue its partnership with faith, Tribal and community leaders to promote basin-wide respectful dialogue seeking ethics-based reforms to the Columbia River Treaty.  Modernization of the Columbia River Treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real reforms that translate to real ecosystem improvements – including for instream flows – for the Columbia River.