Columbia River Roundtable

One River, Ethics Matter

River Roundtable exists to build and connect a community of the Columbia by working together respectfully and networking across the international boundary. Participants in the Roundtable include citizens, businesses, and other organizations in Canada and the United States who support modernizing the U.S. – Canada Columbia River Treaty, and who agree to a Statement of Principles.

The Roundtable serves as an international forum to discuss transboundary environmental, social justice, and governance issues in the Columbia River Basin. Our approach can be summarized with the catchphrase “One River, Ethics Matter.” Since 2014 an annual conference by this name has been held in the Columbia River watershed.

Why the River Roundtable?

The Columbia River is one of the most remarkable rivers on earth, and draws water from a river basin larger than France. When, in the early 1800s, explorers Lewis & Clark and David Thompson first stepped into the watershed, they found a river of life. As many as 16 million salmon returned each year to natal streams flowing in forests, deserts, and mountains renewing a great cycle of life.  Here was a place where Indigenous people lived as they had from time immemorial, depending on salmon and the River.

In two centuries, the blink of an eye, profound changes have occurred in the Columbia River Basin. Among these changes: dams have transformed one of the earth’s richest salmon rivers into the largest integrated hydropower system on earth. The resulting economic benefits have come with wrenching costs to Indigenous and settler communities, fish and wildlife, and the River.

In 1846 Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Oregon, drawing the international boundary as a straight line across the River Basin at the 49th parallel. That decision fragmented traditional territories of Indigenous people whose ancestors had lived for millennia on both sides of the present international boundary. The way that the boundary cuts through the watershed has also challenged Canada and the United States to work together to promote the common good for the people of the Basin and the Columbia River.

In early 1950’s, Canada and the United States began negotiating the Columbia River Treaty. Both nations chose to exclude Indigenous nations, and people of the Basin generally, from the process. The resulting Treaty, which was ratified in 1964, contains only two purposes:  hydropower generation and flood risk management.

New dams built under the terms of the Columbia River Treaty forced thousands of people from their homes, destroyed many agricultural communities, drowned valuable habitat for wildlife and fish, and flooded burial sites and other indigenous cultural sites. Many of the Treaty’s benefits are exported outside the Basin in the form of hydropower. Within the Basin, protection for real estate and industrial development of floodplains in the Lower Columbia River Basin, notably Portland/Vancouver area, came at a terrible cost:  damming and permanently flooding vast areas of the Upper Columbia River Basin in both nations.

In 2024, the current Treaty as approved by both nations will flip flood-risk management responsibilities from Canadian reservoirs to dams and reservoirs on the United States side of the Basin. That looming change has encouraged both nations to revisit the Treaty.  In May 2018, negotiations formally began to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.

Negotiations are occurring even as climate change is unfolding:  glaciers are melting, forests are burning, salmon are dying in heated reservoirs. 

While the U.S. negotiating team (led by the State Department) has chosen to exclude them from negotiations, the 15 tribes of the Columbia Basin have coalesced behind a common views document and have been invited to provide limited input to negotiators. In contrast, the Canadian negotiating team has invited three First Nations to participate in negotiations as formal observers and has benefited from their leadership on ecosystem issues.

Conservation organizations, on behalf of their members and other citizens, have also engaged in this work to bring about badly needed Treaty reforms. 

The effort has spawned the United States NGO Treaty Caucus and, its Canadian counterpart, the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative (UCBEC), working together through the River Roundtable. The Roundtable originally convened in Nelson, British Columbia, in November 2013 and has since maintained a coordinating and networking function through monthly calls and periodic in-person meetings. Participants in the River Roundtable seek changes to the Treaty including:

– Add “ecosystem-based function” as a 3rd Treaty purpose co-equal with the original purposes of flood risk management and coordinated hydropower generation.

– Address climate change impacts.

– Restore salmon and steelhead into portions of their historic habitat currently blocked by dams for the environmental, social, cultural, economic, and spiritual benefit these fish will bring home.

–  Give a voice to salmon and the River by reforming the composition of the “Entities” that administer the Treaty

–  Ensure that tribes and First Nations have a role in treaty governance that is commensurate with their status as sovereign nations.

– Improve public awareness of and participation in domestic and international decision-making about the Columbia River and its watershed.

The River Roundtable regularly invites representatives from Columbia River Basin tribes and First Nations to provide information as we advocate for a modernized Treaty that prioritizes ecosystems and responds to historic wrongs in the watershed.

In short, the River Roundtable also helps to support work underway on flood risk management, salmon restoration, climate change, ethics, the arts, and more broadly on building a community of the Columbia that transcends the straight-line boundary drawn across the upper basin in the 1800s.