River Talks — Playing Poker, Watching Poker at 2014 Transboundary Conference
Since 2005, Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has researched and explored the natural and human history of the rivers of the upper Columbia River Basin.
She speaks frequently at conferences and symposia throughout the Basin on the history of the Columbia River Treaty and its effects on Basin residents. She has recently completed a manuscript titled A River Captured – history and hydro-electricity in the upper Columbia Basin.
An American by birth, Pearkes has been a resident of Canada since 1985 and Nelson since 1994. She has written many articles and several books that explore place and its cultural meaning.
The Geography of Memory, a history of the landscape and indigenous people of the upper Columbia watershed published in 2002, remains a Kootenay classic.
Pearkes has agreed to help The Nelson Daily readers understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.
Today the Pearkes writes about some of the discusssion during a recent The Columbia River Basin: 2014 Conference | Learning From Our Past to Shape Our Future.
I have just returned from a three day extravaganza for anyone interested in how the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) works and what its future might be.
The 2014 Transboundary Conference on the CRT was held October 21-23 in Spokane, Washington.
With 300 people registered and a waiting list, the event was a go-to moment for government, hydro-industry representatives, First Nations and U.S. Tribes, environmental activists, academics and students of water policy.
And then, there were those in attendance who resist categories. Members of the Spicer family, whose abundant farm in the Arrow Lakes valley was drowned by the treaty.
Artists from throughout the transboundary Basin, whose art hung on the walls in the foyer, or in break-out meeting rooms. Historians like me, who listened with an ear to the past, convinced that what happened 50 years ago can somehow teach us something about how to restructure a modern treaty, one that will consider interests ignored in the first version, and may even right some of the historic wrongs.
The major sponsor of all this was the Columbia Basin Trust, a regional institution that deserves kudos for bringing the diverse water interests together in one room.
Canadians appeared to make up at least half of the audience, maybe slightly more. Given that the Canadian portion of the Basin is only 15% geographically speaking, the turnout of those from the headwater zone was impressive.
This demographic has historic roots. The U.S. senate approved the CRT in 1961 with a vote of 99-1, only a few months after signing.
In Canada, a three-year-long debate ensued, with a fractious dispute between the federal and provincial governments feeding a regional controversy about a treaty that became known as the Great Canadian Giveaway. The ratification in 1964 did not end the controversy.
To this day, residents of the upper Columbia region live with what I call the CRT Hangover. Most benefits are felt outside the region, while most costs are born in the region. (Ah yes, I know, there is flood control, but there is also a deep drafting of reservoirs every year, wildlife losses, impacts to recreational fishing and – in an era that quests for food sustainability – a loss of valued agricultural land.)
It was no surprise to me that the room was heavily populated by those from north of the boundary.
As I have said in previous columns, the real impetus for treaty renewal lies in flood control provisions.
B.C. has produced its official position on the treaty, the U.S. has not. The deadline for renewal of the CRT flood control so as to have a seamless transition to the new version in 2024 has already passed (that was in mid-September of this year).
So, when the U.S. State Department representative stood up to speak, the room was silent in some anticipation. The sighs were audible as Joseph Salazar from the US Consulate in Vancouver officially announced that the US does not yet have a position. He assured us all that there is “no need to rush.”
What this might mean is that the US government has some confidence that they can be ready to operate their reservoirs to make room for the spring freshet of 2025. (I know, it seems bizarre to be talking about the weather so far into the future, but any changes to the CRT require a 10-year notice period.)
Or, could this be the start of posturing for the negotiation process? The Canadian diplomatic representative at the conference, Diana Tan from Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, was equally careful with her words, actually reading from a prepared script.
All the government representatives certainly had on their poker faces, including our own region’s Bill Bennett, B.C.’s minister of Energy and Mines.
The noticeable wild card in this game is the presence of the indigenous tribes, who continue to advocate patiently and persistently for restoration of what are broadly known as “ecosystem” values, focused primarily on migrating fish.
Fish like ocean salmon, who need help to get over the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams in the U.S. to return to the upper Columbia River system where they once spawned, and other fish that migrate within the fresh water system, such as sturgeon, lamprey (eel), trout and kokanee.
B.C.’s official position is that salmon were not lost to the upper Columbia due to the treaty, so their mitigation should not be part of the CRT discussions. (Grand Coulee Dam’s construction in the 1930s blocked the fish, with official permission from Canada at the time to forgo fish ladders.)
It was clear following Minister Bennett’s presentation that the well-informed audience of Canadians and Americans (some of whom may have helped elect Bennett and his government) did not necessarily agree.
Stay tuned as the poker game continues.
See Previous Column regarding the Hugh Keenleyside Dam.
See Previous Column.
See Previous Column.