B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett expects to make recommendations to cabinet within the next six weeks on what his government should seek when the opportunity arrives to revisit the Columbia River Treaty.
Both Canada and the U.S. have an opportunity next fall to reopen the 50-year-old water-management pact. It is largely up to the province to set the tone for Canada – unusually, Ottawa transferred most of its authority to Victoria when the deal was signed in 1964.
But even with a deadline bearing down, Mr. Bennett is launching yet another round of public consultations to address long-simmering anger in the communities that bore the brunt of the international water treaty.
Mr. Bennett, whose Kootenay East constituency lies in the heart of the region that was disrupted when the treaty was enacted, has issued a draft report noting the B.C. communities that were flooded to make way for a string of dams are demanding a level of input that was never offered in the 1960s.
“First Nations and public consultation and mitigation at the time could be considered inadequate to non-existent by today’s standards, and feelings of hurt remain to this day,” the new B.C. draft report says.
The treaty resulted in the flooding of 110,000 hectares of land on the Canadian side of the border, displacing more than 2,000 residents in the Columbia River Basin.
Either Canada or the United States can terminate or renew the Columbia River Treaty in 2024, with 10 years’ notice. Both sides appear to be eager to return to the table next September, but with very different visions of what a modernized treaty might look like.
Mr. Bennett said the treaty “works at least as well for the Americans as it does for Canadians.” He’s leaning toward a recommendation where Canada would serve notice that it wants to negotiate improvements for post-2024.
But the minister was cautious about offering hope of dramatic improvements on the B.C. side: “Sometimes you have to remind folks, there was significant loss and damage, but we have also realized considerable benefits from the treaty,” he said in an interview Monday. “And I think everybody is going to have to come to realize that we are not going to get everything we want.”
But the NDP critic for the Columbia River Treaty, MLA Katrine Conroy (Kootenay West), worries that the B.C. Liberal government is ill-prepared for the tough negotiations ahead. She recalls meeting with U.S. stakeholders two years ago at a conference: “We were surprised at how far ahead they seemed to be on this.” She said B.C. has been scrambling to catch up.
However, she supported the call for more consultation. “The people in the Basin want to be heard: 50 years ago they were not, and the results were disastrous.”
Premier Christy Clark will be in Washington this week to defend the treaty, hoping to counter pressure from U.S. interests. Negotiators for the U.S. are pushing to trim the annual benefits that B.C. collects under the treaty.
As a whole, the treaty has proved to be an economic boon to the province: The dams built in B.C. to control water flow south of the border, paid for by the U.S., provide a significant share of today’s hydro-electric power. And the annual payments for the province from the U.S. have added up to billions of dollars in revenue.
But the B.C. government is facing pressure from its own stakeholders to manage the province’s reservoirs differently to restore ecosystems, including wildlife habitat, farmland and fisheries.
The other wild card in negotiating new terms is the impact of climate change. In a webchat with The Globe and Mail on Monday, Les MacLaren, who leads B.C.’s Columbia River Treaty review team, noted that extreme weather in the East Kootenays last year led to the highest water flows since the treaty came into effect. “This may mean that we have to operate our reservoirs a little differently, leaving space for extreme events.”