Have you considered what things are going to be like in 2024? Babies born in 2012 will be just a few short years away from pushing to take the car out on Friday nights, Prime Minister Harper will almost certainly be retired and Obama a memory, but their successors will probably be renegotiating, or perhaps signing, the Columbia River Treaty’s (CRT) newest incarnation.
By 2024 the CRT will turn 60, but long before then Canadians must decide whether to keep the treaty going indefinitely, scrap it or renegotiate. Under the terms of the current treaty 10 years is the minimum period required to back out. The official review process started to ramp up in 2010.
When the treaty was ratified back in 1964 it specified the construction of water reservoirs, mostly in British Columbia, that would regulate the flow of water. The greatest amount of water storage is controlled by the Mica dam north of Revelstoke, the Keenleyside dam west of Castlegar and the isolated Duncan dam, located more than 100 km north of Creston. It also allowed for the construction of Libby dam in the U.S., which backs water up into B.C. between Cranbrook and Fernie.
Dr. John Wagner is an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Among other interests he studies the governance of water and its effects on people.
He explains that the Columbia River Treaty was designed to look after flood control, hydroelectric power generation and the resulting economic opportunities, pretty much in that order.
Because of these dams, back in the ‘60s, thousands of acres were flooded, mostly in B.C. and resulted in the relocation of 2,300 people. First Nations rights were not considered at all, and the flooding resulted in the total elimination of salmon from much of the watershed.
In return B.C. was paid $274.8 million up until 1994. Since then the Americans pay $250 to $350 million per year to B.C. The money, as specified under the treaty, is for the Canadian share of the hydro produced.
Future discussions are going to have different priorities. “I see this as being a governance issue and the CRT wasn’t developed with that in mind.” Wagner adds, “What got me interested was the number of people saying that we have to bring these other issues in.”
Dr. Anna Warwick-Sears is the executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board. The Okanagan is the only substantial contributory watershed of the Columbia in British Columbia that wasn’t directly affected by the CRT, but as Warwick-Sears points out, “I’m always concerned with unintended effects.”
And the B.C. tree fruit industry believes there was a substantial unintended effect – the extra irrigation helped the expansion of the Washington State fruit industry, to the cost of B.C. growers, according to the current president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, Kirpal Boparai.
As far back as 1928 Americans were irrigating 3.5 million acres of farmland with water from the Columbia or its tributaries. In 1966 (two years after the CRT was ratified) that number increased to 6.6 million, but that was before the CRT dams and reservoirs were operating. Today there are eight million acres under irrigation.
“As near as I can tell they added 2 million extra acres,” Wagner says. Perhaps one quarter of irrigated land then is the result of the CRT; although how much of that two million is in fruit production has not been measured.
The BCFGA, facing an existential crisis for the industry in the Okanagan, believes some money from the treaty should go to the tree fruit industry.
In 1995 the Columbia Basin Trust was set up to share some of the money B.C. receives from the Americans with affected British Columbians in the Columbia River basin, but since no land was flooded in the Okanagan, the region has been, and is today, excluded from those payments.
“It’s a legitimate argument that we are providing [the Americans] with a water subsidy, but is it one, two or 10 per cent? That’s the question we have to ask,” says Wagner.
The numbers are important. If the CRT is renegotiated Wagner believes compensation should consider more than just flood control and hydro.
For tree fruit growers these considerations could form the basis for discussions with the provincial government to get some of that money.
Wagner is uncertain fruit growers will get much attention from the province, regardless of the merits of their argument.
“I’m not optimistic because agriculture doesn’t have much profile in B.C.”
Ironically, Wagner says agriculture may get less attention in Washington under a new deal. He has heard arguments the water should go to the highest use, which in economic parlance means the use that will generate the most money. Right now there is more money to be made in Washington from generating hydro and selling it, than growing crops.
Warwick-Sears says another discussion going on right now concerns the operating orders for water levels in Osoyoos Lake. That, she believes, is a harbinger of things to come. “The Okanagan Lake presages the whole CRT. It’s just a tiny version of it, but it’s the same issues.”
Operating orders address the level of Osoyoos Lake, as determined by the Zosels Mill Pond dam in Oroville, Washington. Water levels are controlled under the Border Water Treaty under the auspices of the International Joint Commission.
These operating orders for Osoyoos Lake are not part of the CRT.
Water levels are allowed to drop in the winter months, and then gradually go up in the spring to provide for agriculture and tourism.
The focus, under the operating orders, is lake level to minimize property damage from ice and flooding. The Americans have already applied for changes to the system by 2013.
One issue not considered the last time the operating orders were discussed was flow rates, rather than lake levels. This can be critical for fish stocks and will certainly affect agriculture.
Warwick-Sears sounds a cautionary note about putting too many things into the operating orders. “If it becomes part of the operating orders it becomes cast in stone for 20 years.” Instead she says, “we can have non-binding flow targets that both sides commit to that will be more responsive.”
The Water Basin’s executive director is worried that treaty language, fixed for decades, is inflexible and may not serve our interests that well. Wisdom that seems just as applicable to the greater issues raised by the Columbia River Treaty, and something to be considered by all parties before the next 60 years is set in place.