Roll on, Columbia

Grand Coulee

The mighty Columbia River flows 1,200 miles from its source in British Columbia to its terminus at the Pacific Ocean. The river’s strength lies in its volume and rapid descent, fed by countless tributaries and falling 2,600 feet along its course. Humans have drawn on its vast resources for at least twelve thousand years. White settlement and rapid regional development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries drastically altered the Columbia’s traditional role and uses. In the last century more than sixty hydroelectric dams have been built in the Columbia system, including fourteen massive concrete dams regulating the flow on the main stem of the river. The Columbia has not always taken kindly to its taming. The 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the U. S. and Canada addressed some pressing problems, but ignored others. Now near expiration, the treaty is being renegotiated, which offers hope for equitable consideration of all users, restoration of river health, and flexibility for the future.

The Columbia’s current course was carved by about 15,000 years ago near the end of the last Ice Age as the huge Lake Missoula in northwest Montana repeatedly broke through ice dams, releasing unimaginable torrents of water to the west. Amerindians migrated in from Beringia soon after (possibly before) the floods subsided. The tribes that settled near the raging Columbia River risked its unpredictability for its rich resources, chief among which were the salmon that sustained them for thousands of years.

A new kind of flood inundated the region in the nineteenth century. White missionaries, settlers, prospectors, and promoters surged into the West, determined to reshape the region according to their own agendas. By the early twentieth century the Columbia was targeted for its potential hydroelectric power sites and irrigation of the arid Columbia Plateau. My grandfather, Harry Olson, worked on the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams in the 1930s, and, like the river, our family’s course was deeply altered in the process. Significantly, Grand Coulee was built with no fish ladders, barricading migrating salmon from returning to their spawning grounds. The mammoth dam’s power generation, vital to national defense industries in World War II, and the vast Columbia Basin irrigation project dominated the public’s attention. But the river wasn’t tamed yet.

Seventy years ago this past Memorial Day, the catastrophic 1948 Vanport flood just north of Portland killed fifteen people and left 18,000 homeless. The river swelled rapidly with a deadly combination of melting snowpack, warm temperatures, and heavy spring rains, breaking through the levees. The tragic flood provided the impetus for an international treaty governing Columbia River flows. Negotiators on both sides worked over the ensuing decade and a half toward a treaty that ultimately mandated construction of storage reservoirs and three additional dams upriver in British Columbia (and another in Montana) to reduce potential downriver flooding and regulate flows for downstream needs. In exchange for the reservoir storage, British Columbia received an annual allotment of electrical power and capacity that it initially sold to fund treaty dam construction, but in recent decades has sold at market value – the cost of which, some argue, is passed on to the electrical bills of U.S. consumers.

The original 1964 treaty, despite its difficult negotiation, is considered a positive model of “transboundary water cooperation.”  Cross-border tribes, however, argued for additional water releases from the treaty reservoirs in dry years to help the salmon runs and, increasingly, Native American groups and environmentalists have decried the salmon-blocking dams and endangered wild salmon runs on the river as a whole. Regional legislators decry the growing imbalance in the so-called “Canadian entitlement.” British Columbians chafe at the extreme fluctuations of their reservoirs to accommodate U. S. demands. As the treaty nears expiration in 2024 (technically no expiration date, but at that point either side can cancel any or most of its provisions with a ten-year notice), interested parties from all sides recognize that it’s time for an update. On the table are modernizing dam operations; balancing hydropower distribution, compensation, and reservoir levels; flood mitigation; adjustment of river flows in low-water years; restoration of the native aquatic habitat; and finally acknowledging tribal participation in the process.

The first round of treaty talks took place in Washington D.C. May 29-31, 2018, and the next round is slated for mid-August in British Columbia. The State Department, several federal agencies and the Bonneville Power Administration are basing renegotiation on recommendations by federal, state, and tribal entities that were finalized in 2013. (While fifteen tribes on the U. S. side and three First Nations on the Canadian side have deeply vested interests in the fate of the river, none were granted seats at the negotiating table.) The nine general principles of the 2013 recommendations include an acknowledgement of climate change impact and the need for flexibility moving forward. In addition to hydropower and flood risk management, recommendation details also call for coordinated investigation and implementation of restored fish passage from the main stem to Canadian-side spawning grounds.

The treaty talks must address the needs and concerns of all of the people in this vast region and the many uses of the river’s water (including that made by millions of salmon), as well as provide a resilient but flexible plan for the future. Climate change has altered the Columbia River’s flow and course over many millennia and change is the only constant ahead. The bilateral Columbia River Treaty renegotiation talks are also vital to preserving the close alliance of the United States and Canada at a time when aggressive trade policies and divisive commentary from the White House threaten that bond. Let the Columbia River be the link that binds us as we move forward.

(Credit to Woody Guthrie for his 1941 ode to public power, “Roll on, Columbia.” The original lyrics that callously dismissed Indian resistance are excised in modern renditions.)