Regional News: Local environmental groups urges new Columbia River Treaty to incorporate ecological purpose

Members of more than 50 various conservation groups found throughout the Columbia River watershed have sent a letter

Members of more than 50 various conservation groups found throughout the Columbia River watershed have sent a letter to federal Environment Minister Stephane Dion, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking that the Columbia Basin Treaty be modernized by adding another ecosystem-specific purpose to the treaty.

Among the signatories were two members of the East Kootenay environmental group Wildsight, including Invermere resident Kat Hartwig, who signed as the executive director of Living Lakes Canada. Wildsight executive director Robyn Duncan was the other local signatory.

“When the treaty was first negotiated (1964), we didn’t have the same world as we do today,” said Ms. Hartwig. “The effects of climate change, for instance, or the resilience of ecosystems were not things that were even considered back then. The focus on the treaty was much more engineering-centric, because that was how people thought then.”

The co-operation between 50 groups across the Columbia Basin from both sides of the borders is nothing unique or precedent-setting given the nature of the issues at hand, according to Ms. Hartwig.

“This kind of collaboration is happening more and more frequently as the challenges become more complicated,” she said.

The letter states the groups hope to promote a healthy basin by ensuring the river and its people can adapt to the increasing effects of climate change, and that to achieve these goals, they are recommending “the addition of (an) ‘ecosystem-based function’ as a third treaty purpose” as well as the development of a cross-border “analytic base to explore and assess operational scenarios and watershed futures across the whole Columbia Basin.”

According to a press release issued by the conservation collective, the scope of the original treaty in 1964 outlines two  purposes — co-ordinated power production and flood management. Important provisions of the treaty are set to expire in 2024 and an opportunity to update the treaty began in September 2014. Both countries and many groups on both side of the borders have already begun preparing for negotiations.

The letter cites the restoration of wetlands and floodplains, minimizing the impact of dam operations on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and the reintroduction of salmon into Canada as examples of what is needed to improve the ecology of the Columbia River.

Ms. Hartwig expressed optimism that the groups will see an ecological purpose added to the treaty.

“I am hopeful that the renegotiated treaty will address environmental concerns,” she said. “In part, because we are already experiencing the effects of climate change here in the Columbia Basin. We have different drought and flooding regimes that we didn’t have before. And because I think most people realize we need to be looking at how to mitigate and adapt to these effects. It won’t be an easy process to predict what changes climate change will bring, but we go have climate models that can help.”

Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Steski said he supported the efforts, adding that while he was the Cranbrook mayor, he sat as the East Kootenay representative on the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee, which ultimately produced a report that outlined some similar environmental objectives.

“We suggested that a modernized treaty should have more ecological focus, so absolutely we are in line with what these local groups are asking for,” he said.

Stetski explained the Local Governments Committee report (and a Ktunaxa First Nation’s report) differed from the provincial government’s report on the matter when it came to the reintroduction of salmon.

“We really supported salmon being brought back into the Columbia River system, but the provincial government was not as supportive on the salmon question,” he said.

He expressed optimism about an ecological purpose getting incorporated into the treaty, saying “there’s certainly efforts on that from both sides of the border, which is a good sign.”

Stetski added the renegotiating process of the treaty is likely to be long one.