The Columbia River Treaty
Since 1964, the Columbia River Treaty, ratified by Canada and the United States, has governed management of the Columbia River. The Treaty exclusively focused on flood control and power generation, ignoring the river’s fish, wildlife, and ecological requirements, as well as the interests of tribes and First Nations – salmon people – for whom the Columbia River Basin has been home from time immemorial.
The Treaty came toward the end of the Basin’s dam-building era, a chapter of the Basin’s history that transformed one of the world’s richest salmon rivers into an “organic machine”: stair-stepping dams and reservoirs that replaced millions upon millions of returning wild salmon with an integrated hydropower system. To be sure the dams brought benefits, but with a price: devastating damage to a living river and wrenching costs to people who depended on the river and returning salmon.
Modernizing the Treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore the river’s damaged ecosystem for the people of the Columbia Basin and especially the First Nations and tribes. Giving voice to the voiceless – fish and wildlife, and generations unborn – underscores the need to address stewardship and justice principles in reforming river governance.
The four dams built as the result of the Treaty, combined with coordinated management of mainstem and tributary dams, wiped out the natural spring and summer surge of flows down the Columbia. That flattening of the river’s hydrograph, in addition to the dams themselves, profoundly altered the Columbia River’s ecology.
Within three decades of Treaty ratification, thirteen species of Columbia River salmon were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Turning large sections of the Columbia and its tributaries into a series of dammed reservoirs also resulted in routine violations of the Clean Water Act due to excessive temperatures and chemical pollutants.
Columbia River Treaty Roundtable
In November, 2013, CELP worked with organizations on both sides of the international border to convene the Columbia River Treaty Roundtable in Nelson B.C.. The Roundtable serves as an international forum to discuss transboundary environmental, social justice, and governance issues in the Columbia River Basin. The 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 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.
The Treaty Today
The treaty was intended to last 60 years, with a 2024 deadline for renewal. If the terms of the current treaty are not renewed, the responsibility for flood control south of the border from Canada will shift to the U.S., potentially forcing major operational changes at eight dams and reservoirs located in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
In September 2022, 32 organizations signed on to a letter requesting that tribes and communities impacted by the decision are kept informed about the process. The U.S. Negotiating Team has not held a public meeting in over 2.5 years and provides only infrequent and minimal written updates, leaving citizens concerned.
Even while the U.S. negotiating team (led by the State Department) has chosen to exclude tribes 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.
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 historical wrongs in the watershed.
US NGO Treaty Caucus
In April 2013 CELP and Save Our wild Salmon (SOS), with help from the Northwest Fund for the Environment, brought together a coalition of 12 environmental organizations to form the Columbia River Treaty NGO Treaty Caucus to work in alliance with the 15 Columbia River area tribes. In Canada, NGOs have formed the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative to educate Canadian citizens and decision-makers about opportunities to benefit ecosystems through a modernized treaty.
This collaboration of international civic, faith, energy, and conservation organizations is working for a modernized Columbia River Treaty that will serve our region’s diverse needs now and into the future.
In September 2022, we joined 32 organizations representing millions of people in writing a letter calling on the Biden Administration to stop leaving the Northwest in the dark. In March 2023, we followed up with another letter asking President Biden to add voices for the river and its ecosystems into the Treaty’s governing structure.
Ethics And Treaty Project
The Ethics & Treaty Project is hosted jointly by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Sierra Club with support from the Columbia Institute for Water Policy. The project works with the Columbia River Treaty Round Table and Columbia Basin tribes and First Nations with natural resource rights and management authorities and responsibilities affected by the Columbia River Treaty. (The Ethics & Treaty Project neither represents nor speaks for tribes and First Nations.)
The project’s goal is to promote principles of stewardship and justice in modernizing the Columbia River Treaty, which governs water and dam management on the Columbia River. The United States and Canada can update and modernize the Treaty as early as 2024, and represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how the Columbia River is managed. Our specific goals are to restore the river (including the return of salmon and other native fish species to areas now blocked by dams), and remedy historic injustices done to the Columbia Basin tribes & First Nations caused by the dam-building era in the Columbia Basin.
Based on the Columbia River Pastoral Letter by the 12 Roman Catholic Bishops of the international watershed combined with tools used by hospital ethics committees, in May 2014 Gonzaga University hosted a conference “Righting Historic Wrongs” on the Columbia Basin. The conference provided a forum for religious and indigenous leaders, scientists, and conservationists to discuss the impact of dams – acknowledging benefits while focusing on the wrenching damage and remedies through modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.