Negotiating the power of the Columbia River

The World
Updated on
black and white river footage

What do Boeing, the Portland International Airport, and some of the cheapest electricity in the US have in common?

They all depend on harnessing the power of the Columbia River.

That river is once again the focus of negotiations, as Canada and the US work to revamp the treaty that governs how Canada manages the dams on its portion of the river.

The Columbia River Treaty was signed by Canada and the US in 1961, and both countries built dams on their sides of the border, which provided electricity and flood control. It also allowed for safer development downstream.

But the treaty also led to the loss of land and has impacted communities who live along the river — which begins in the mountains of British Columbia, and then flows more than a thousand miles through Canada and into central Washington, ending in Portland, Oregon, where it empties into the Pacific.

Canada lost 270,000 acres of land when the US built their dams as a result of the treaty. In return, Canada would receive yearly compensation in cash and it also got an upfront payment for flood-control services, which Canada then used to build their dams.

Now, as the US-Canada agreement expires in 2024, negotiations are underway for a new treaty, which could include changes to the payments and the two countries’ responsibilities.

But some Canadians say the money doesn’t make up for the land lost to the reservoirs.

Linda Armstrong, who lives in British Columbia, said her family’s ranch was just upriver from Libby Dam. It was one of the dams built in 1971 as a result of the treaty. The ranch, she said, drowned under the newly formed Lake Koocanusa, part of which is in Canada.

Her family lost everything, Armstrong said, adding that her father’s loss of 320 acres of developed riverside land was compensated with 150 acres of undeveloped land, and his cattle operation fell apart.

“He literally fought 10 years just to get what he got,” she said.

Their ranch was just outside of the town of Waldo, British Columbia, which was also lost.

History of the treaty 

The Columbia River’s rushing waters used to pose serious risks for the towns on its banks.

In May of 1948, the river breached a levee in Vanport, Oregon. The flooding destroyed the whole town and more than 50 people died. It was never rebuilt.

The flood kick-started talks between Canada and the US about how they could control the river, and, critically, benefit from its power.

Historian Eileen Delehanty Pearkes wrote a book called “A River Captured,” about the river’s history.

In her research, she read about the river as “a dream landscape for hydro-engineers” because of the steep-sided valleys and narrow passages.

“It was an ideal place to slap up some concrete,” she said.

But a lot of the land was rich in natural resources — which was lost in the process of developing the dams.

“A lot of it was occupied by old-growth forests,” said Greg Utzig, an ecologist who has studied what the dams did to the land.

“If you think of the most-productive, largest, old-growth forests existing in the valley bottoms in British Columbia — of which there are hardly any left in the interior — that’s what it was.”

Farmland also flooded. Photographer Steve Shannon has documented some of the damage near his home in Nakusp, in British Columbia.

“You’re talking [about] an area that was as productive or could have been more productive than the orchards and wineries of the Okanagan,” he said, referring to the nearby Okanagan Valley, which is famous for its fruit and wine production.

“That could have been this and then some. But instead, we’re looking at a vast expanse of nothing.”

Shannon said that he talked to families who, like Armstrong, lost everything. And in many cases, what they received in return was less land, of lower quality.

Indigenous communities — and the archaeological evidence of their history — were wiped away under the rising water.

“It broke people,” Shannon said. “It broke their spirit.”

Renegotiating the treaty 

Under the current Columbia River Treaty, the US pays Canada about $300 million a year. But the treaty expires next year.

And some stakeholders in the US say Canada should not keep getting that money — because the ongoing payments Canada receives are actually from electricity produced in the US.

As part of the treaty, the US sends that electricity to Canada. Canada then turns around and resells it back to the US, which is a bigger energy market.

Power utilities in the US say it’s unfair for their customers to be stuck with the bill.

“This power should be used for the economic development and the well-being of the public servants, the farmers, and the vulnerable communities that we serve,” said Ryan Redmond, the CEO of Washington nonprofit power utility Benton REA, at a recent listening session held by the US State Department.

“These benefits are clearly skewed in favor of the Canadians, regardless of the intention of the treaty,” he continued.

He wasn’t alone — the sentiment was shared by several other power utility representatives.

According to US government statistics, Washington customers pay some of the lowest rates in the US, in part because of the predictability of the river with the Canadian dams controlling its flow.

“They don’t have to do much of anything,” Delehanty Pearkes said. “Meanwhile … upriver, the devastation, while it may not be absolutely permanent, if you live there, it’s pretty permanent.”

Also on the bargaining table: salmon.

First Nations and Native American tribes have called for more water to be released downriver when salmon need it for spawning, rather than considering only power production and flood control. In the current treaty, the US has control over the river’s flow.

Delehanty Pearkes said that if dams were bathtubs, “the Americans control the spigots. And Canadians live around the edges of those bathtubs, with no power about when they fill or empty.”

Ecologist Utzig said that what the Indigenous groups are asking for could mean generating less power and less money. Having more flexibility around the flow of water could also mean wetlands around the perimeter of the reservoirs could be restored.

“We want to maintain payment for the downstream benefits we’re providing, obviously, but at the same time, we also want more flexibility in the way we operate the dams that we can make these gains back in Canada,” he said.

But photographer Shannon said there’s too much damage already done.

“How do you put a price on this?” he said. “And how do you say that you’re done? Like, we’re never getting this land back.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version erroneously stated that some ongoing funds from the treaty go into the Columbia Basin Trust.

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