Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Columbia River Treaty, Rolling On

Unusual Travel Destinations

The Columbia River Treaty is on the table this year in that serious, slow motion way treaties are when they are on the table.  In 2024, there is an opportunity to change the treaty or even opt out of it, but any changes require a ten year notice, so work is going on feverishly today to come up with positions for both the Canadian and US sides by 2014.
The treaty is a monster business deal that got much of its impetus from the construction of Grand Coulee Dam.  The core business proposition is that British Columbia builds three dams on the Columbia in Canada and the US builds one in Montana that provide the necessary storage to generate additional electricity at American dams downstream, starting at Grand Coulee.  The parties then split the proceeds of the additional generation, called the downstream benefit, and the US purchases the significant flood control benefits provided by Canada.  Both countries get irrigation.
The treaty brackets the brief presidency of John.  F. Kennedy.  It was just about the last thing President Eisenhower did as President, signing it with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on January 17, 1961.  President Johnson, Prime Minister Lester Pearson and British Columbian Premier W.A.C.  Bennett signed off on various legislative changes made during the ratification process and made it final at the International Border near Blaine, Washington on September 16, 1964.
As World War Two was ending, Canada and the US asked the International Joint Commission, the group set up by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the US and Great Britain, to study ways that would maximize the value to both countries of the great river they shared.  It took the IJC 15 years, but they produced something both countries really liked.
Negotiations between the parties had been taking place while the IJC was doing all that study so it was a relatively quick 13 months to come up with a satisfactory package in 1961.  It took nearly three years to get it ratified as British Columbia and the federal government of Canada disagreed on the idea of exporting electricity to the US.  
When it was all done, British Columbia sold its share of the downstream benefits to a consortium of utilities in the US and used the proceeds of the sale to build their three dams.  Over time, British Columbia took back its share of electricity.
Bureau of Reclamation
While not part of the document, an important element of the treaty is the fact of Grand Coulee Dam, whose massive storage in the US and in Canada and whose sizeable generation capacity earns much of the cash for the treaty participants.

The presumed value of this great project changed dramatically over time.  Early on, its political value was to create a reclaimed desert for displaced dustbowl homesteaders but then the world went to hell and it served as the arsenal of democracy.  An AP story had it that the first 400,000,000 kilowatt hours produced in 1941 created 20,000 tons of aluminum, enough for 6,400 fighter planes.  Soon after it was finished, electrons from the dam were delivered south to a “mystery load” at a place called Hanford.
The Saturday Evening Post, reflecting on the controversial history of the project, had it this way with the headline:
“White Elephant Comes Into Its Own.”
The dam started out as a much smaller project than it became.  It was about half as tall as it is today, 550 feet, and would have looked more like its sister dam, Bonneville, downriver.  But the low dam didn’t do as much for irrigation since most of the water went to generate electricity, so it didn't work with the local boosters.
The Hoover Administration and private utilities feared that the electricity produced by the dam would not have enough customers.  During the twenties, US electricity production had doubled and utilities feared costly surpluses in the crippled economy of the thirties where loads did, in fact, decrease in several of the Great Depression years.

September 22, 1938
Cushman Collection, Indiana University
But President Roosevelt was all in on Grand Coulee when he took office and set aside enough money to begin the project as part of his first hundred days.  He quickly came to the conclusion that the higher dam was the right solution and in legislation passed in 1935 federalized the project – putting the Federal Power Commission statutes and their environmental and property right protections out of play.  This dam would be built by the administration, now exempt from its own rules, by the Interior Department, run by one of the most able of the president’s men, Harold Ickes, whose Bureau of Reclamation had the motto “Total use for greater wealth.”  

Confederated Tribes of the Colville
The big losers were, of course, the salmon and the Native Americans living above the dam, the Colville and the Spokane as well as the First Nations living along the 465 miles of river in Canada.  Both US tribes had treaty fishing rights at Kettle Falls where aboriginal people had fished since the last Ice Age.  The dam would permanently block salmon from the remainder of the Columbia River north of it, 650 miles, and wipe out spawning habitat in another 650 miles of tributaries.  Kettle Falls makes an occasional appearance in extremely low water conditions today.

Be assured this was no oversight.  The US and Canadian governments were fully aware that the design of the dam was lethal to the fishery.  Huge irrigation pumps located just behind the dam face sucked out water at 18,000 cubic feet/second – the normal flow of the Skagit River.  The 550 foot drop over the concrete dam face would descale migrating fish or kill them on impact.  Also, costs of the fish ladders at Bonneville were coming in much higher than expected.   So, none were contemplated seriously in the US and the Canadians, who wanted as many dams on their side of the border that they could fit in the river, were not objecting.  Because the political choreography seemed better, the US applied for International Joint Commission approval for the dam just before it was finished, which was provided in three months.
Washington State University Libraries
The fish were an afterthought.  Well after construction progress had blocked the river, in 1937, the Bureau of Reclamation gave $25,000 to the Washington State Department of Fisheries to investigate salmon mitigation strategies.  Director W.B. Brennan recommended a large hatchery at Icicle Creek outside of Leavenworth that would hatch the eggs, raise the doomed races of fish and distribute them below the dam.  The fact is that the salmon of those times simply had no status.  In 1937, a work stoppage was misinterpreted by the workforce as coming from the state of Washington Fisheries Department.  One of the many Coulee Dam boosters at the time summed up the prevailing attitude by asking the question “what is more important – the 15,000 people living here or the love life of 30,000 fish.” 
The tribes were more difficult because, unlike the salmon, they didn’t go away.  At a hearing in 1994, Spokane leader Warren Seyler testified his tribe had received just $4,700 in compensation and the Colvilles testified they had received but $63,000 for the fishery, houses and their agricultural lands along the banks of the river.  A frantic effort in 1938 resulted in the reburial of some of the more recent native American dead from both tribes.  Many graves of both tribes are still under Lake Roosevelt, buried with their heads pointed down river. 
In 1951, the Colvilles sued under the Indian Claims Commission Act, a remarkable statute that sought to give the nation’s tribes their day in court.  In 1994, their pursuit of justice led to HR 4757, The Grand Coulee Settlement Act of 1994.  Colville Chairman Eddie Palmanteer testified for the tribe:
“The Colville people suffered uniquely as a result of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. Two Colville towns, Inchelium and Keller, were inundated by the backwaters created when Grand Coulee Dam was built. Today they, with their hundreds of years of history, lie under the waters of Lake Roosevelt, as do the graves of many of our ancestors that could not be removed as the waters rose. In short, Grand Coulee Dam changed forever the livelihood and lives of our people and the very nature of the Colville Reservation. For this, the Colville Tribes received sixty three thousand dollars.”
The Settlement Act gave the Colville and the Spokane $53 million for past flooding of their lands and they now receive $15 million annually for the continued use of their reservation for power production. 

Wenatchee World
The tribes got their justice.  “Was it full compensation?” asked Palmanteer.  “No.  We realize that for the Pacific Northwest the Grand Coulee Dam has made development and prosperity possible. But for us, it has been a disaster. How much is reasonable compensation for the loss of our fishery, our way of life, our towns where our elders lived?"
But, he went on, "is it fair?"  His answer was  "Yes.”
Justice for the salmon remains elusive.  The Icicle Creek Hatchery still operates, though ironically, it blocks the lovely creek it sits on and is the subject of a lengthy lawsuit. 
The region has spent many billions over the past thirty years and has created a not-so-small industry of scientists, technicians and policymakers, non-governmental organizations, engineering firms, lawyers and advocates.  For all its activity, this complex has been unable to articulate what Eddie Palmanteer was able to describe about the understanding he was a part of -- something that is fair, but well short of full.  Without that understanding they are, like Sisyphus, pushing the rock uphill. Like Sisyphus, Big Salmon appears content, if not entirely accountable.
Negotiators in the US are working toward some kind of a recommendation on issues around the Columbia River Treaty sometime in mid-2013.  There are plenty of uncertainties and complications and the number of interested parties on our side and theirs create a confusing setting for precise communication -- much like trying to have a conversation in a noisy restaurant. 
And the setting is so different from those conversations at the beginning of the treaty 47 years ago.  Global warming was not yet thought of, something to consider for a river draining two major mountain ranges over 1240 miles.  Nor was there any thinking that salmon would have such stature in the northwest corner of the United States that 20 different species of salmon would have listings under the Endangered Species Act and the region spends the power equivalent of two nuclear plants providing water for the salmon to migrate downstream.  Nor was there then the concept that the British Columbian government would have to consult with its First Nations Tribes on decisions affecting them and their way of life.  Nor were there more than 3,000 megawatts of wind generation plugged into the Bonneville system with many kinks to be worked out and more on the way.
What was preposterous in 1964 is everyday life today as the Columbia rolls on and the two sides get ready.

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