Arrowhead circa 1910. The town vanished beneath the waters of Upper Arrow Lake Reservoir by 1968 after the Hugh Keenlyside Dam was built.

U.S. is ripping us off on water

Columbia River Treaty's token payments for hydro power don't recognize value of flooded farmland, irrigation or salmon recovery

VICTORIA – The U.S. has Canada over a barrel on water as well as oil these days, but the tide is turning.

Last week I mentioned a new book called The Columbia River Treaty – A Primer by members of Simon Fraser University’s climate adaptation team. This slim volume makes the case that B.C. has ended up with a shockingly bad deal from this 1964 treaty, which concerned itself entirely with flood control and hydroelectric power.

In those days there was little or no environmental assessment. Agriculture, fish habitat and aboriginal impacts were ignored. More than a decade after the disastrous flood year of 1948, once Ottawa stopped its bureaucratic delays, U.S. public and private power utilities paid B.C. $254 million to build three dams on the Columbia system.

Those dams (and one at Libby, Montana that mostly floods B.C. land) hold back the huge spring runoff from the Rockies and then dole out water for power production in B.C. and for the 15 hydro dams previously built downstream in the U.S.

The U.S. payment was for half the power over 30 years, which B.C. didn’t need at the time. Then our American cousins cut us another cheque for $64 million, an estimate of the value of flood protection from 1968 all the way to 2024.

Boy, did we get taken. The SFU team calculates the value of that flood control to the U.S. at more like $32 billion.

That’s not even the worst of it. The Kootenays were once the leading fruit and vegetable growing area in B.C., bigger than the Okanagan. Now in the Arrow Lakes and other reservoirs, levels rise and fall dramatically to steady the flow south. In addition to the large areas permanently flooded by the Mica, Duncan and Hugh Keenleyside dams, this renders more of B.C.’s prime bottom land impassable.

B.C. is paid precisely zero for this sacrifice, while Washington state has developed a $5 billion-a-year farm economy using our stable irrigation source. That has helped their tree fruit growers push some Okanagan orchardists out of business.

As U.S. billionaires continue to bankroll environmental attacks on B.C. and Alberta energy projects, it’s worth noting that long before the treaty, the U.S. military-industrial complex had wiped out the Columbia River salmon runs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its private power partners dammed everything they could find, exterminating a fishery bigger than the Fraser that had sustained aboriginal people on both sides of today’s border for thousands of years.

B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett and SFU’s Jon O’Riordan both described to me their experience at the Columbia River Basin conference, held last October in Spokane.

Their main impression was that Americans, including traditional tribes, want those salmon runs restored. Vast amounts have been spent on hatcheries and habitat to speed recovery below the Grand Coulee dam, which stands like a giant tombstone for migratory fisheries above it.

Should the Americans ever manage to get salmon above their biggest dam, it will largely be up to B.C. to provide sufficient cool water to keep them alive. That service has an increasing value to the U.S. as well as an ongoing cost to B.C.

Bennett surprised some in Spokane when he said the U.S. needs to pay more for the benefits from the Columbia River Treaty.

The flood control agreement expires in 2024. The treaty requires 10 years’ notice for either country to exit. Climate shifts are expected to make B.C. water more important than ever.

Your move, Uncle Sam.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

IN PHOTOS: 2020 Wilgress Lake Fishing Derby

Fishermen dotted Wilgress Lake for the Boundary Métis Association’s annual event

Grand Forks marches against gender violence

The Grand Forks march was part of 1 Billion Rising, a global movement against gender violence

Midway mill shutdown expected to last 8 to 10 weeks

Vaagen Fibre Canada cites low inventory, road restrictions as reason for shut down

First presumptive case of coronavirus identified in the Interior Health region

The woman, in her 30s, travelled from Shanghai and lives in the interior

Students test out future careers with WorkBC visit

By far, WorkBC tour manager said, the airplane pilot station was a favourite

Protesters barricade Premier John Horgan’s home ahead of B.C. budget unveiling

Demonstrators from the Extinction Rebellion have blocked the Langford driveway

Victoria, Abbotsford record biggest jumps in rent prices nationwide: report

Toronto and Vancouver had priciest rentals in Canada

VIDEO: Convoy of forest industry supporters on its way to Victoria

Rally at the B.C. legislature begins with participants setting off from Campbell River

Two overdose deaths in Nelson over the weekend

Police warn that much of the current drug supply in the city may be dangerous

Teen snowmobiler found safe after overnight search in Okanagan

The teen had been missing since just after 6 p.m. on Monday

New highway proposed between Alberta and B.C.

The route would connect Red Deer to Kamloops

Woman arrested in Cariboo after fuel stolen, police car rammed

Suspect wanted for crimes allegedly committed in Kelowna, Salmon Arm and 100 Mile House

No dramatic shifts expected as B.C. government tables new budget today

Finance Minister Carole James has promised to stay the course when she tables the budget in the legislature

Most Read