Last week, a series of public consultations on the Columbia River Treaty renegotiations began in communities across the Kootenay region including Jaffray, where there was strong engagement from local residents.
The Columbia River Treaty involves a water storage agreement between Canada and the U.S., which was signed in 1964. It helps manage flood control and power generation on both sides of the border.
One of the public consultations was held in Jaffray and was attended by approximately 30 engaged locals who brought forward suggestions on what they thought should be addressed in the East Kootenay area.
Nelson Mayor and Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee chair, Deb Kozak, explained that one of the biggest points emphasized was the loss of agricultural and ranching opportunities when the Libby, Keenleyside, Duncan and Mica dams were installed.
“People who were at the meeting spoke very strongly about the need to revive the agricultural industry, to see it as something that is important and to support what is left,” she said.
Farmers’ plea for support
So what would it take to revive the agricultural industry? Well, according to lifelong rancher Faye Street, it’s going to take a lot but the solution is relatively simple.
When she and her husband asked their two sons to take over their ranch, the boys responded, “Are you crazy?”
Street explained that it was near impossible to service the B.C. agricultural industry without drowning in financial burdens.
When the four dams were developed, large reservoirs were created, which flooded valley bottoms and displaced approximately 2300 people in the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin. Before this, the Kootenai River Valley was used as prominent agricultural land.
After the damming, the town of Rexford was moved and the town of Waldo was buried.
Street says that few people cared that this cost the region approximately 5000 head of cattle and forced a good percentage of their farmers to leave.
That kicked the foundation out from under the agricultural industry, she said.
“The industry is up against the wall right now,” said Street.
“It is tough. And we see more and more farm families where both husband and wife have to work then they have another full-time job keeping their ranch going on weekends, and that’s why we can’t encourage the young people back to the land. We just can’t.”
With the treaty back on the table, she says this is Canada’s last chance to restore their agricultural industry, otherwise everyone in the area will be eating imported food for the rest of their lives.
She says the average age for farmers and ranchers in this area is “ancient” due to the inability for young farmers to get a foothold on any land worth developing for a reasonable price.
She suggested the Columbia Basin Trust help fund this industry to help get it back on its feet.
Street believes the trust wouldn’t have the funding they do if they hadn’t flooded the valley.
“I feel the people who got hurt the very worst in that flooding was (those in) the agriculture industry,” she said.
“There could be a lot of things that could be done to help this industry, and one of those things is financial assistance.”
She also proposed low interest loans to help farmers get back on their feet, lower fuel taxes, and lower irrigation rates to keep them going as long as they produce food. She said some ranchers spend $60,000 a year on fuel alone.
Street wasn’t the only individual at the Jaffray meeting who spoke about the need for agricultural compensation.
Some of the participants said there had been a tremendous amount of support given in the form of fish and wildlife compensation, but almost nothing for agriculture.
“That was something that the province heard and will be taking back to the minister (Katrine Conroy),” said Kozak.
Libby Dam controversy
Currently the Libby Dam in Libby, Montana, is not included in the treaty. It is solely managed for the benefit of the Libby Dam, unlike the three other dams, which are managed for the benefit of both countries.
Kozak said that locals expressed very strong support for recognizing the impacts that this dam presents to the residents of Canada.
“If we brought the Libby Dam in, we would have better communication between both countries and both entities that are operating those facilities,” said Kozak.
A young farmer in the Jaffray area spoke at the meeting about how his father was flooded off the reservoir. He said he would like to see programs to provide infrastructure for the recreation industry, as well as recognition of impacts to agriculture and environment.
Kozak explained that when the Local Governments Committee was formed to plan for what could happen with the treaty, those governments that made up the Kootenay region were aware that the treaty was coming up for possible renegotiation in 2014.
Governments rallied together in 2011 for the purpose of reaching out to communities to inform them about what the treaty meant and also to receive feedback from them about what they would like to see if the treaty was renegotiated.
The first round of community meetings took place in 2011 and 2012, and their submitted recommendations to the province were accepted.
Now, with the U.S. stating their intention to begin negotiations, the Local Governments Committee came together once again to revisit communities for a second round of education and feedback.
Kozak said that in terms of renegotiating with the U.S., the priorities of local government in this area are very much in line with what local First Nations would like to see.
“We want no further impacts to the basin, and if there’s improvements, we want a fair share of what is coming to Canada because it’s the people here who bear the impacts (of the reservoirs and dams) to this day,” she said.
A hot topic of discussion surrounding the Columbia River Treaty negotiations between Canada and the U.S. has been downstream benefits.
Kozak explained that in recent history, the U.S. had expressed disinterest in continuing to pay downstream benefits to Canada for flood control and power production. Every year, based upon projected power profits from the river, this revenue is split 50/50 with Canada.
Following this, the province hired Ernst and Young Accounting to calculate the benefits that the United States receives from the treaty.
“It’s much more than flood control and power production,” said Kozak.
“They also (receive), with the river being managed, irrigation to agricultural lands… recreational opportunities, ecosystem benefits, navigation benefits…”
The United States currently uses barges to transport goods to the mouth of the Columbia River and Kozak says this saves the nation a substantial amount in transportation costs.
“And all of this is because the river can be managed,” she said.
The province has not yet revealed the result of Ernst and Young’s assessment to the public, but local governments are being kept apprised of what is going on.
Initial talks have begun, but negotiations will not be finalized for some time.
What’s to come
This will not be a quick negotiation, considering the scale of this treaty and everything that must be discussed, according to Kozak, who predicts talks could continue for a few years.
So far, local governments, the province, and the Government of Canada are aligned and working very well together, says Kozak. There is no disagreement between them at this time.
At the end of the day, she knows one thing for sure – the interests of the people of the Basin must be addressed.
“Local governments have said, if things are proceeding smoothly and it looks like the recommendations we put forward in the interest of the people of the Basin, which we believe are good for the entire country, are on track, then we’re together,” said Kozak.
“But if there’s a fork in the road then we’ll deal with that when it comes.”
The last time the Columbia River Treaty was negotiated, Kozak said the people of the Basin were not heard.
This time, throughout Columbia Basin, she says there’s a respect for the knowledge and expertise of the people in the Basin.
“We live here, we know what’s going on,” she said.
“That’s a very different approach than what happened in the 1960s.”
Read more: Business/talks-to-begin-with-trump-administration-on-columbia-river-treaty-renewal
Anyone who missed the meetings or would like to find out more about the negotiations can visit Engage.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty.