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New Columbia River Treaty Must Prioritize Local Tribes and Ecological Concerns

A 60-year-old treaty between the U.S. and Canada to jointly manage the Columbia River is being renegotiated.

View of the Columbia River from the Multnomah Falls trail in Oregon, United States.

Canada and the United States met in October for their 19th round of negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. The 60-year-old Columbia River Treaty is an engineering agreement between the two countries to jointly manage the international Columbia River to reduce flood risk and optimize hydropower production.

The river runs through the heart and history of the U.S. Northwest and plays a vital role in all aspects of life in the Northwest. The river system is also under grave threat from the climate crisis and pollution, as well as many dams built on its mainstem and tributaries.

In an historic announcement this fall, President Joe Biden committed $200 million over 20 years to support tribal-led efforts to reintroduce salmon above the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. In order to uphold our nation’s tribal treaty and trust responsibilities, the administration issued a presidential memorandum to protect the Columbia River watershed and to restore “healthy and abundant” salmon and other native basin fish.

The U.S. State Department’s current treaty negotiations with Canada must provide a strong foundation for the president’s initiatives. If a strong foundation for President Biden’s priorities and policies is not built into a modernized treaty, efforts now underway to restore and protect the river and its basin for future generations will be undermined.

Deadly flooding in Portland back in the 1940s was the impetus for the trans-boundary Columbia River Treaty agreement. The treaty engineered the living river into an industrial machine by building more dams and coordinating water releases to protect against floods and produce hydropower. The treaty gave a green light to floodplain real-estate development in the greater Portland metropolitan area.

But when Canada and the U.S. signed off on the treaty in 1964, the threat of the escalating climate crisis and the immense value of healthy ecosystems were barely on the countries’ radar. Negotiators also shut out Indigenous sovereigns — including the 15 tribes with river management authorities on the U.S. side of the border — even though they had participated in sustainable fishing and had tended these lands and waters from time immemorial.

“Tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada suffered profound damage and loss from Columbia and Snake River dams,” tribal leader John Sirois told the Sierra Club publication Nature’s Advocate. “Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty is a critical opportunity for Canada and the United States to join together in acknowledging damage done, right historic wrongs, and commit to stewardship of this great river in the face of climate change.”

Unsurprisingly, the current engineering treaty ignores the health of the river and the expertise of its original stewards. In the 2000s, as federal agencies prepared to negotiate an updated river treaty, tribes weighed in. In an historic turn in 2010, the 15 tribes endorsed the “Common Views on the Future of the Columbia River Treaty.” The “Common Views” document calls for protecting and restoring the Columbia River’s health, honoring treaties and trust responsibilities, and respecting tribal sovereignty. The document also lays out that “the tribes’ collective voices must be included in the implementation and reconsideration of the Columbia River Treaty.”

Moreover, an updated Columbia River Treaty must also include “ecosystem function” — the ecological health of the river — as a third primary purpose co-equal with its two current engineering purposes: minimizing flood risk and generating electricity.

While the river-as-machine approach has provided benefits to our region, the cost has been unacceptably high. Some species are now extinct, others teeter at the edge. Indigenous cultural sites have been desecrated and destroyed. Yet still today, the Columbia River and its tributaries, once home waters to the greatest salmon populations on Earth, sustain fish and wildlife central to Indigenous communities and cultural practices.

Emerging Indigenous leadership on the treaty and trans-boundary governance is remarkable as we look back to cultural genocide and forward to climate crisis. Climate change is warming waters impounded by dams, increasingly causing devastating fish kills. Already, more than a dozen fish species are listed as threatened or endangered under federal and state laws. Many runs of salmon and steelhead trout teeter on the brink of extinction.

Real estate developers and people living on floodplains should take note of climate crisis when considering the future of the Columbia River Treaty. They must heed the lessons of the floods of 1894, 1948, and 1996 and realize floodwaters will return once again. We need to build on Portland’s work at Johnson Creek and the region’s work in the Columbia Estuary, in which officials moved people and structures out of harm’s way and reconnected rivers to floodplains while restoring salmon. Adding ecosystem function to the new treaty will likewise boost ongoing efforts to protect lives and property by gradually working to reconnect the river to its floodplain.

Adding ecosystem health as a new treaty purpose would also create clean water and support fish and wildlife-reliant communities and economies through at least partially restoring natural river function by, for example, releasing flows in the spring for ocean-bound migratory fish. Doing so would increase the river’s resilience against the impacts of a changing climate. Moreover, adding ecosystem health to the treaty would align with the goals set forth by President Biden on the Columbia and its tributaries.

Finally, a modernized treaty must improve governance systems to include a “voice for the river.” The Biden administration should also consult with tribal nations and relevant federal agencies with environmental and trust responsibilities about how to best bring new voices into critical decision-making processes for treaty implementation in the years ahead.

River as machine, or a living river? The U.S. and Canada have a critical opportunity right now to strike a new and better balance. As pressure builds into 2024 for the two nations to reach an agreement, U.S. negotiators must ensure any modernized river treaty complies with, supports, and advances the policies and priorities that President Biden has put forward, as well as respects the input of tribal nations. At a minimum, this means adding river health as a third treaty purpose while adding a river voice to treaty governance and implementation.

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