Columbia River Treaty
Agreement Type: agreement, treaty
The Columbia River Treaty (CRT) was signed in 1961 by the United States and Canada to outline the development and operation of four dams in the upper basin of the Columbia River in British Columbia, Canada. Of these, three dams were built in Canada (Duncan, Keenleyside, and Mica Dams, in British Columbia) and one in the United States (Libby Dam, in Montana). The treaty also assigned an allocation of storage, flood protection and energy benefits to both governments and requirements for Canada to ensure that a certain minimum value of storage be made available at all times (Hyde, 2010). The treaty was signed in 1961, but was not ratified until 1964, when a formal implementation protocol was created outlining payments between countries and allowing sharing of downstream power benefits from constructed dams (Hyde, 2010).
As part of the agreement, either party may independently terminate the CRT in the year 2024, provided they give 10 years notice and declare their intention to terminate the agreement by 2014. Given that this deadline is now very near, both U.S. and Canadian governments are examining options for the future management of the basin (Bankes and Cosens, 2012). As of 2024, the treaty's provisions for flood control will change but remain in effect even if the treaty is terminated (Bankes and Cosens, 2012).
Flooding in the Columbia River basin in the late 1950’s prompted both governments to investigate possibilities for flood control and possible power generation in the region. The treaty was not implemented until 1964, when a more specific protocol was drafted which more clearly outlined payments to be made to fund dam construction in Canada.
The CRT sets clear provisions for the allocation of economic and other benefits, but does not include provisions for environmental health, especially with respect to fisheries and wildlife, and does not mention first nation and local interests. It is also thought that the agreement heavily favored the United States, as the U.S. paid a lump sum of $254 million for the first 30 years of power generation benefits accrued from dams in Canada, while this may not have actually covered the costs of construction. It is also feared that raised water levels from the dams may allow the transmission of endemic biota between the Upper and Lower Columbia River basins. This has led to a distrust of U.S. interests in Canada and a perception that the U.S. government is “bullying” its neighbor state (Schindler and Hurley, 2004). This will make future cooperation more difficult, and cause local attitudes on both sides of the border. The impending 2014 deadline and the possibility of termination within just over a decade provide opportunities to alter the treaty to increase equity. A new version of the treaty could include ecological integrity and ecosystem services as a key priority, emphasize community involvement in planning and management, and recognize the rights and needs of Native American groups affected by management strategies on the Columbia River (Bankes and Cosens, 2012). In 2010, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Adminisration started an investigation to study post-2024 treaty options and changes (Army Corps of Engineers, 2012).
Case Studies Related to this Agreement
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- “The Future of the Columbia River Treaty”, Nigel Bankes and Barbara Cosens, created for the Program on Water Issues, University of Toronto —
- “Climate Change and the Columbia River Treaty”, Rachael Paschal Osborn, © 2012 Washington Journal of Environmental Law and Policy —