Fire up half a dozen bulldozers over a summer and Canada could turn the Kootenai River away from Libby Dam and pour its water into the Columbia River.
Nobody’s planning to do that. But somebody thought it was significant enough to include in the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada. Negotiators for both nations have started work rethinking that treaty, which otherwise automatically renews in 2024. In the process, they’ve stirred up much more than theoretical engineering projects.
“The original treaty had two purposes, hydro-power generation and flood-risk management,” said Jon Osborn, a medical doctor who helped organize the “One River: Ethics Matter” conference in Missoula this week. “But that came at great cost to the river system, to the salmon and to the people of the basin. We have an opportunity to seek justice and stewardship. We can add a third purpose, ecosystem function, as a primary purpose of the treaty.”
The treaty affects a region the size of France. It takes in the Columbia River as it makes a huge north-south arc up through British Columbia and down through Washington and Oregon. Montana contributes the Kootenai, Flathead and Clark Fork river systems. Idaho’s Snake River touches bits of Wyoming, Utah and Nevada as it makes its way from Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Columbia in Washington.
Those rivers pass 68 major hydropower and flood-control dams before they reach the Pacific Ocean. The treaty obligates Canada to hold back millions of acre-feet of water to prevent floods like a 1948 disaster that ruined neighborhoods from Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, to Portland, Oregon. In return, Canada gets the revenue from 50 percent of the hydropower produced by downstream U.S. dams. Ironically, that deal was formed at a time when both nations assumed nuclear energy would eclipse hydroelectricity as the main generation source.
The Columbia watershed touches 32 Indian tribal nations in the United States and First Nations in Canada. All of those sovereign states have treaties granting them a say in how the rivers are managed. In the case of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, that includes ownership of one of the most significant dams in the system: Seli'š Ksanka Qlispe' Dam at the southern tip of Flathead Lake.
Brian Lipscomb is the chief executive officer of Energy Keepers, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ corporation managing the dam and its hydroelectricity. He said the Canal Flats area where the Kootenai and Columbia pass within half a mile of each other presents an interesting accident of geography. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to re-arrange them.
“As an engineer and tribal member, I can look at Canal Flats and know that with six bulldozers and a summer and we can turn the Kootenai River down the Columbia,” Lipscomb told the conference attendees. “That should not be a bargaining chip on either side of the conversation.”
Rather, Lipscomb wondered why CSKT has to hold water back to provide flood control in Canada, while Canada gets to use that same water to sell as hydropower to the United States. That not only affects the economics of the Flathead dam, but hurts its ability to move water in ways that benefit native fish.
And that fish issue drives a much bigger community of people interested in reshaping the treaty. The Columbia and Snake rivers supported one of the largest wild salmon spawning runs on the planet before dams blocked their passage.
Ktunaxa First Nation Chief Alfred Joseph told of how his ancestors named the river above Columbia Lake “Red Water” for all the blood spilled during the annual salmon harvests. The site was so well known, Stony Indian bands from Alberta would cross the Continental Divide to fish with his people, just as the Ktunaxa went east to hunt buffalo.
“When the dams came, the Ktunaxa lost our burial grounds and our salmon,” Joseph told the conference. “That’s never come up in the treaty.”
Until now. In 2001, a dozen Roman Catholic bishops produced a pastoral letter asking people to consider the damage done by dams on the Columbia watershed and seek ways to fix it. Nine years later, 15 U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations issued a call for a seat at the table of treaty negotiations so they can add their sovereign claims to the conversation.
“We want to negotiate something that’s different and make sure we’re part of the solution going ahead,” Lipscomb said. “For all its problems, from a worldwide perspective, this treaty is still a shining example of how two countries can work together and use a resource.”
Conference organizer Osborn said time is short to make the case that ecosystem functions are just as valuable as hydropower or flood control in Columbia River Basin management.
“The Trump and Trudeau administrations are moving forward with negotiations, so we need to make sure Montana’s interests are protected,” Osborn said. “I’m concerned that the negotiators are not in the room here. That failure to show up sends an important message. As we get closer to the deadline, it’s increasingly important to hear from people on the ground.”
Both U.S. State Department lead negotiator Jill Smail and her Canadian counterpart were invited to attend the conference. Smail will hold a public listening session in Spokane on April 25, but otherwise, few opportunities remain to participate in the official proceedings.
In addition, four of the most controversial dams on the lower Snake River could be removed from treaty review if a bill by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Washington, makes it through Congress. HR 3144 is expected to have more hearings in late April or early May.
“We don’t know if the tribes will be at the table or what other stakeholders will be included or not included,” Osborn said. “There are historic wrongs that need to be redressed. And with climate change, we need to build resiliency into the system. One thing is clear: Vigilance is going to be required.”