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Shaping the future of the Columbia River Basin
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Shaping the future of the Columbia River Basin

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Columbia River Basin

The Columbia wetlands during high water.

The University of Montana is hosting an international conference on the ethics surrounding the Columbia River Treaty. "One River, Ethics Matter: Western Montana" will take place on Wednesday, April 11, in the University Center Ballroom. It is the fifth in a series of international conferences, and one of many public forums over the past few years designed to inform and invigorate discussions about the future of the treaty.

Negotiators representing the United States and Canadian federal governments are in the process of discussing how, if at all, the treaty might be revised. The existing treaty, ratified in 1964, governs flood control and hydropower operations in the international river basin.

Many people throughout the basin believe the treaty should updated by including several additional objectives that were originally contemplated in 1944 for the international agreement, including “reclamation of wet lands … conservation of fish and wildlife … and other beneficial public purposes.” Today, these and similar objectives are frequently referred to as “ecosystem function.” Any decision to modernize the treaty will set the stage for international operation of the river during this century.

Whether the treaty will be updated any time in the near future is anyone’s guess. It is also unclear if and when there will be opportunities for tribes, First Nations, states, provinces and stakeholders to provide input and advice in the negotiation process.

Although the official negotiators have yet to announce a public engagement plan, several civic leaders throughout the basin have convened a number of public forums to facilitate conversation and understanding, and to seek agreement on the path forward.

• The Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance convened transboundary dialogues throughout the basin in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

• The Center for Environmental Law & Policy convened international ethics conferences throughout the basin in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

• The Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Columbia Basin Trust convened an international conversation in Spokane in 2015.

• The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies held a public dialogue in Alberta in 2015.

• Simon Fraser University, the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council, and the Canadian Water Resources Association convened a workshop in British Columbia in 2015.

• Western Washington University and Northwest Indian College convened a public conversation in 2017.

• The Centre for Canadian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley convened a workshop of experts in 2017.

Several other public forums, including but not limited to the Lake Roosevelt Forum and the Treaty Roundtable on the Columbia River, have also convened public dialogues on the future of the basin and the treaty. Taken together, these public forums serve as examples of Track II diplomacy.

In the world of international negotiations, Track II refers to informal, unofficial dialogue among citizens, experts and groups of individuals. Track I diplomacy, by contrast, is the official interaction among governmental representatives. Track II is not a substitute for Track I. Rather, Track II diplomacy assists official actors by raising awareness, building understanding, developing options and exploring possible solutions in an open, inclusive forum that is not constrained by the expectations and requirements of formal negotiation via Track I diplomacy.

Track II diplomacy is an essential ingredient to shape the future of the treaty and the Columbia River Basin. These homegrown efforts should supplement whatever official process, if any, the negotiators provide for public review and comment.

Given the potential impact of these Track II discussions, anyone who cares about the future of the Columbia River Basin should participate in the fifth annual ethics conference on April 11 in Missoula.

Matthew McKinney is director of the Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy at the University of Montana.

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