Council Reports On The Key Takeaways Of Columbia Basin Transboundary Conference

By John Harrison, Northwest Power and Conservation Council,

Every five years since 1998, the Council and its closest counterpart agency in British Columbia, the Columbia Basin Trust, have co-sponsored a conference on the international Columbia River. This year, the conference was in Kimberley, British Columbia from September 12 through 14. A total of 288 people from Canada and the United States attended.

As with past conferences, the Kimberley event focused on key transboundary Columbia River issues that are being addressed in both countries. This time the issues were the impacts of climate change; the future of the Columbia River Treaty; the problems caused by invasive species and the responses to them; reintroduction of anadromous fish to the Columbia above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams and into British Columbia; the future of energy including aggressive development of renewable resources in both countries; and a proposal to improve and better coordinate governance of the river.

Co-hosts of the conference were Trust Chair Rick Jensen and Council Chair Jennifer Anders. The conference also had leadership from Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations. Assisting Co-Chairs Jensen and Anders were Margie Hutchinson, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes Business Council, and Joe Pierre, chief of the ʔaq’am Community of the Ktunaxa Nation. A significant portion of the conference was created and directed by First Nations and Columbia Basin Tribes, and the conference was held in the traditional territory of the ʔaq’am Community.

The conference also included a trip for all participants to Columbia Lake, headwaters of the river, where First Nations and the Columbia Basin Tribes conducted cultural ceremonies and guides offered tours of the headwaters springs that flow into the lake.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the conference:

Climate change:

The output of long-range climate models has not changed much in the last decade. The models show snowpack declining, winter rain and summer drought increasing, temperatures warming throughout the year, and more wildfires. With higher streamflows, habitat for fish and wildlife will be affected as higher runoff increases erosion and carries larger amounts of sediment. But, as Crystal Raymond of the University of Washington said in the climate change session, while the trends are clear, our confidence is high enough to act. There is still time to change the impacts.

Invasive species:

This is one of the biggest issues facing the western United States and Canada. There are impacts to the economy, the environment, and human health. The problem is more than just Zebra and Quagga mussels and Northern Pike. It’s also aquatic plant species like flowering rush, and terrestrial species like feral pigs. Invasive species can change the ecosystem and affect irrigation, hydropower, and municipal water infrastructure. This is a human-caused problem, and people are hard to manage. What is needed is adequate funding for the fight, diligence to attack the problems, and coordination among agencies with authority to address them.


The morning and evening power-demand increase is a major challenge for utilities as they steadily move away from always-on, baseload electricity generated by fossil fuels. Solar power is proliferating, and it is cheap. But solar only generates during daylight, and so reliable backup power will be needed. New gas-fired plants, existing hydropower, and energy storage are the best options. What we want from our power system is flexibility, security, sustainability, reliability, affordability, and resilience. Balancing these qualities will be tricky, but it must be done. “We don’t know what life is going to be like in 2045 or 2050,” Ann Rendahl of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission said, “but there is a great deal of innovation in clean fuels, energy generation, and carbon capture to allow further decarbonization and energy storage.”

Columbia River Treaty:

Sylvain Fabi, who leads the Canadian team in the current negotiations over modernizing the treaty, highlighted the mutual respect and spirit of collaboration that exists among the negotiators for Canada and the United States. He said both countries want an equitable sharing of hydropower benefits, and both countries see flood risk management as a high priority, but exactly what constitutes “equitable” and the details of flood risk management remain matters for discussion. The Canadians brought First Nations into the negotiations, and while the U.S. side has not done the same thing, the American negotiators have heard presentations from Columbia Basin Tribes. Katherine Dahani, the U.S. consul general in Vancouver, said the U.S. is eager to move forward to define how everyone will continue to benefit from the treaty. She said both countries benefit from coordinated flood control and hydropower operations, adding, “from our standpoint the treaty remains extremely important, but we can improve on it.” She agreed with Fabi that the two countries seek an equitable sharing of benefits from hydropower operations, but that the two sides “need to agree on what is truly equitable.”

Salmon reintroduction:

The Upper Columbia United Tribes presented some of the conclusions of their work to identify suitable habitat for anadromous fish above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, and potential stocks of fish that could be used for reintroduction. This work was completed with support from the Council’s 2014 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program strategy focused on mitigating for lost anadromous fish in blocked areas of the basin. Similarly, First Nations discussed their own work north of the international border to identify suitable habitat and stocks. Representatives of the Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations agreed that managing the river and dams for ecosystem benefits in addition to hydropower and flood control, the two key missions of the original 1964 Columbia River Treaty, would assist efforts to reintroduce salmon, should that happen.

International River Governance

The policy experts who convened the governance session wrote a paper that presents a rationale for creating an International River Basin Organization (IRBO) for the Columbia River, modeled after other IRBOs in other river basins around the world. Climate change will force changes in dam operations in the Columbia River Basin, and also force changes in the Columbia River ecosystem. To adapt to these changes, governments and policies related to the river need to have the flexibility to change and adapt. The question is which ecological issues can be better managed through international coordination and cooperation as opposed to the existing legal scheme under the Columbia River Treaty? An IRBO would help identify and coordinate those issues, and others related to, for example, river operations. Next steps should include education and dialogue, modernizing the Columbia River Treaty, and establishing an IRBO, the session organizers said, and they also proposed the establishment of a forum to coordinate and address ecosystem-based function objectives as they relate to the use of storage water and river-flows at the border.

John Harrison is a public affairs officer for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

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