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Columbia River Treaty Reaches Age 50 This Week; British Columbia, U.S. Considering Future Options
Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 (PST)

Tuesday, Sept. 16, marked the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Columbia River Treaty, an international agreement between Canada and the United States that was created with the goal of developing Columbia River water uses – specifically for power generation and flood control -- for the benefit of both countries.


The trans-boundary water management agreement was signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964.


The treaty has no specified expiration date. Either Canada or the United States can unilaterally terminate the Columbia River Treaty any time after Sept. 16, 2024, provided written notice is filed at least 10 years in advance.


This suggests a “notice date” of Sept 16, 2014, but notice could have been done earlier and can be done later.


Both British Columbia and the United States are considering options to determine whether or not to give notice. Regardless, Assured Annual Flood Control expires automatically in 2024 and converts in 2024 to a Called Upon operation of Canadian storage space as may be needed by the United States for flood risk management


The treaty optimizes flood management and power generation, requiring coordinated operations of reservoirs and water flows for the Columbia River and Kootenay River on both sides of the border.


The Columbia River Treaty has been a significant driver behind diverse economic, public safety and ecological uses of the Columbia River, according to the so-called U.S. Entity.


As a direct result of the treaty, four storage dams were built: Mica, Arrow and Duncan dams in British Columbia, Canada; and Libby Dam in Montana. The Columbia’s headwaters are in British Columbia. The river flows south into Washington, then west along the Oregon-Washington border to the Pacific. Tributaries from British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming feed the Columbia-Snake river system.


These four projects more than doubled the storage capacity of the Columbia River system, increased control of the river flow, thereby decreasing the risk of major flooding events downstream, and provided opportunities for releasing water at times needed for power generation and other downstream benefits such as fisheries and water supply.


For the past 50 years, treaty operations have helped prevent major flood damages and provide for economic development across the basin.


The U.S. Entity, which consists of the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division Engineer, is charged with formulating and carrying out the operating arrangements necessary to implement the Columbia River Treaty in concert with the Canadian Entity.


“We appreciate the extensive coordination and collaboration we’ve enjoyed with BPA and the Canadian Entity on this important treaty over the past 50 years,” said Brig. Gen. John Kem, commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, “This extensive cooperation with Canada and U.S. regional interests has allowed us to achieve common treaty goals and also to respond to the changing needs in the Columbia River Basin,” added Elliot Mainzer, BPA administrator.


Looking to build on the past success of the treaty, the U.S. Entity led a three-year review process that culminated in a regional recommendation regarding the future of the Treaty. That recommendation, available at, was delivered to the U.S. Department of State Dec. 13, 2013, and is now undergoing a formal review by the U.S. government.


“The stated goal of the regional recommendation is for both countries to develop a modernized Treaty framework that reflects the actual value of coordinated power operations with Canada, maintains an acceptable level of flood risk and supports a resilient and healthy ecosystem-based function throughout the Columbia River Basin,” according to a Dec. 13 letter signed by Kem and Mainzer that was sent to U.S. and Canadian officials. “It is important to achieve a modernized framework for the treaty that balances power production, flood risk management, and ecosystem-based function as the primary purposes addressed in the treaty, while also meeting other congressionally authorized purposes of the U.S. projects, such as irrigation and navigation.


“The recommendation includes general principles, followed by topic specific recommendations for a modernized treaty. In addition to the regional recommendation, we have included a section that identifies domestic matters for consideration by U.S. domestic interests to be addressed post-2013.”


The recommendation to the U.S. president to strike up negotiations with Canada regarding a renewal of the treaty sets out numerous goals for such discussions, such as re-evaluation what monetary “entitlement” should be send north of the border to pay for benefits received south of the border, and whether ecosystem considerations, such as salmon restoration needs, should be part of any new agreement.


Likewise, Canadian governmental entities are considering their stance on the treaty, with concerns about the apportionment of benefits.


On Sept. 16, 1964, British Columbia Premier W.A.C. Bennett, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and United States President Lyndon B. Johnson met at the International Peace Arch Boundary at Blaine Washington and Surrey, B.C. and ratified the Columbia River Treaty.


“Today the treaty is known throughout the world as one of the most successful models of trans-boundary water management,” Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said this week.


“Since the Treaty dams - Duncan, Arrow (now Keenleyside), Mica and Libby -- were constructed there has never been a flood causing major damage along the Columbia River. Co-ordination under the treaty allows the hydroelectric system to respond to seasonal challenges during both high and low flow periods,” Bennett said. “Hydro power generated by the dams provides clean, reliable and renewable energy throughout British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.


“But as we mark the anniversary of the treaty it is also important to acknowledge the historic and continuing impacts. Two-hundred and seventy thousand hectares of Canadian ecosystems were inundated. Residents and communities were displaced and economic opportunities lost,” the premier said. “Treaty operations continue to impact the Columbia basin where some reservoirs fluctuate by as much as 47metres (155 feet).


“In March 2014, informed by a two-year treaty review process that included extensive public and First Nations consultation, the government of British Columbia announced its decision to continue the Columbia Treaty and seek improvements within its existing framework.


“The primary goal of the treaty from our perspective is to create and equitably share benefits from trans-boundary co-operation with the United States, recognizing that British Columbia is impacted by treaty operations. We have identified 14 principles that will guide British Columbia in any discussions on the future of the treaty with Canada and the United States,” Bennett said.


“In the United States a federal interagency review of the treaty continues under the direction of the National Security Council on behalf of the president of the United States.


“In B.C. we continue to engage with First Nations, residents and elected officials in the Columbia Basin, we’re in discussions with the Government of Canada on developing a collaborative approach to any future negotiations, and we’re working to ensure U.S. stakeholders, legislators and decision makers understand British Columbia’s perspectives and principles on the treaty.


“The Columbia River Treaty has shaped lives and communities in the Columbia River basin and around our entire province for 50 years. We’re committed to working collaboratively with all Treaty partners to achieve improvements in the treaty and make it better for future generations.”


The Canadian Entity is BC Hydro.


The Columbia River Treaty is implemented by the entities. Together, they work cooperatively and are responsible for the daily operations of the reservoirs and hydroelectric facilities.


The Province of British Columbia is the Canadian Entity to manage the Canadian Entitlement, Canada’s half share of the downstream power benefits.


Under the Columbia River Treaty, Canada (British Columbia) agreed to build three dams [Duncan (1967), Arrow/Hugh Keenleyside (1968) and Mica (1973)], and in return received benefits based on the additional flood control and power generation potential. British Columbia received an upfront one-time payment of $64 million for 60 years of assured flood control.


Canada’s half share of the additional power that could be generated in the United States as a result of the dams, the downstream power benefits, is called the Canadian Entitlement. Under the 1963 Canada-British Columbia Agreement, these benefits are owned by the Province of British Columbia.


British Columbia sold the first 30 years of the Canadian Entitlement to a consortium of utilities in the United States for $254 million and used the money to finance the construction of the three Columbia River Treaty dams.


The Canadian Entitlement continues as long as the Columbia River Treaty is in place. If the Columbia River Treaty is terminated, the Canadian Entitlement ends.


The Columbia River Treaty also provided for the construction of the Libby dam (1973) in Montana and the resulting reservoir, Lake Koocanusa, stretches back 68 kilometres into British Columbia.


The Libby dam regulates water flow on the Kootenay River, the major uppermost tributary of the Columbia River. The obligation to regulate water flow on the Kootenay River continues indefinitely, even if the Columbia River Treaty is terminated.


Starting in the early 1990s, other agreements under the Columbia River Treaty have been put in place to serve additional values such as managing water flow for fish and for recreation.


For more information, see:


-- CBB, March 21, 2014, “British Columbia Announces Decision To Continue Columbia River Treaty While Seeking ‘Improvements’”


-- CBB, Feb. 28, 2014 “15 Basin Tribes, Canadian First Nations Issue Report On Restoring Upper Columbia Salmon Passage”


-- CBB, Dec. 20, 2013, “Final Recommendations For Revising Columbia River Treaty With Canada Sent To State Department”


-- CBB, Nov. 27, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty Prompts Discussion Of Restoring Salmon Passage To Canadian Headwaters”


-- CBB, Nov. 1, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty Negotiations Will Impact Libby Dam Operations, Reservoir Drafting/Refill”


-- CBB, Oct. 18, 2013, “B.C. Releases Draft Columbia River Treaty Recommendations, Wants Full Accounting Of U.S. Benefits”


-- CBB, Sept. 27, 2013, “U.S. Releases Draft Recommendations For ‘Modernizing’ Columbia River Treaty”


-- CBB, Aug. 16, 2013, “Environmentalists Say Columbia River Treaty Needs To Expand To Include ‘Ecosystem-Based Functions”’


-- CBB, Aug. 9, 2013, “Utilities Group Expresses Concern With Columbia River Treaty Draft Recommendations, Process, Scope”


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