B.C., U.S. grapple over Columbia River pact

VICTORIA – Governments on both sides of the Canada-United States border are preparing for what could become a decade of negotiations to rework the 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty, a treaty Americans say is financially weighted in Canada’s favour.

The 1948 flood at Vanport City, Ore., which killed 15 people and forced about 18,500 residents to flee with only 35 minutes notice, was a major impetus for a flood-control treaty to regulate water levels through dams and reservoirs.

Vanport City was one of the largest housing developments during Second World War but was essentially wiped off the map that spring.

Swollen by weeks of heavy rains, the river crested about four metres higher than its flood plain, forcing a massive evacuation.

Since the treaty was signed, flood waters have been largely under control.

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But the Americans have signalled they want to revisit the treaty because of ongoing concerns about the hundreds of millions of dollars British Columbia receives from power generated by the U.S. hydro-electric dams and the loss of fish habitat, including salmon and sturgeon.

Canada and the U.S. have until next September to formally declare they want to reopen the treaty, which gives each side 10 years of negotiating before 2024, when the changes take effect.

B.C. is leading the Canadian talks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are representing the Americans.

The parties have been conducting preliminary treaty examinations in advance of next September’s deadline to start negotiations or terminate the deal.

B.C. released its preliminary treaty draft recommendation Wednesday, leaving the door open to entering negotiations but suggesting the province is satisfied with the current pact.

B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett said the treaty has provided flood relief and economic benefits on both sides of the border. Bennett said it shouldn’t be a surprise the U.S. would like to improve its position, which B.C. is open to discuss.

“It’s a valuable treaty and it works pretty well,” he said. “We’re open to having discussions about how we can improve the treaty. It would be disrespectful to take any other kind of position.”

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Bennett said public consultations will take place next month in several Kootenay-area communities, including Nakusp, Castlegar, Golden, Valemount and Jaffray.

B.C.’s draft position suggests the deal caused hardship to communities, businesses and aboriginals, and any new deal must reflect the economic and social impacts of the current treaty.

“The construction of the treaty dams and reservoirs caused much hardship to communities and First Nations that were directly affected, and ongoing reservoir operations continue to cause negative environmental, social and economic impacts,” said the B.C. draft recommendation statement.

“However, the treaty dams have been a success in preventing damaging floods to Kootenay communities and residents, in creating renewable energy that powers a large portion of the province, in providing jobs and economic spin offs to nearby communities, and by contributing to the province’s general revenue that supports services to all British Columbians.”

But the Americans, who issued a similar draft position last month, appear to be in favour of renegotiating the treaty.

“It is in the best interests of the region to modernize the treaty post-2024 in such a way as to bring about better and more balanced benefits to the region,” states a Sept. 20 letter from the U.S. side.

The statement is signed by Stephen R. Oliver of the Bonneville Power Administration and David Ponganis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Northwestern Division.

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Dams and reservoirs constructed along the Columbia River control water releases and prevent floods, but dams also create hydro-electric power, which earns B.C. between $100 million and $300 million annually from the Americans.

Some Americans says their high hydro bills subsidize energy payments to the province.