Sunday, April 21, 2013

The mystique of the Columbia River Treaty

The mystique of the Columbia River Treaty

By Henry McCall
The Daily Magi
October 14, 2037


The Columbia River Treaty is a 1964 agreement between Canada and the United States on the development and operation of dams in the upper Columbia River basin for power and flood control benefits in both countries. Four dams were constructed under this treaty: three in Canada (Duncan Dam, Mica Dam, Keenleyside Dam) and one in the United States (Libby Dam). The treaty provided for the sharing with Canada one-half of downstream U.S. power and flood benefits, and allows the operation of Treaty storage for other benefits. The long-term impacts of the treaty have been mixed: while the dams have provided enormous economic benefits to British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest through hydroelectric generation and flood control, there are longstanding concerns regarding social and economic impacts to the local communities, and the environmental effects associated with the construction and operation of large dams.

In 1944, the Canadian and U.S. governments agreed to begin studying the potential for joint development of dams in the Columbia River basin. Planning efforts were slow until a 1948 Columbia River flood caused extensive damage from Trail, British Columbia, to near Astoria, Oregon, completely destroying Vanport, the second largest city in Oregon. The increased interest in flood protection and the growing need for power development initiated 11 years of discussion and alternative proposals for construction of dams in Canada. In 1959, the governments issued a report that recommended principles for negotiating an agreement and apportioning the costs and benefits. Formal negotiations began in February 1960 and the Treaty was signed 17 January 1961 by Prime Minister Diefenbaker and President Eisenhower. The treaty was not implemented, however, until over three years later due to difficulties in creating arrangments for funding the construction of the Canadian dams and marketing the electrical power owed to Canada which was surplus to Canadian needs during the early treaty years. A treaty protocol was signed 22 January 1964 that clarified many treaty provisions, defined rights and obligations between the British Columbia and Canadian governments, and allowed for the sale of the Canadian Entitlement to downstream U.S. power benefits. Instruments of ratification were exchanged and the treaty was implemented on 16 September 1964.

In Canada, British Columbia Premier W.A.C. Bennett and his Social Credit Government were responsible for the development of infrastructure throughout the province during the 1950s and 1960s. W.A.C. Bennett was the Canadian force behind the Columbia River Treaty and as a believer in the development of public power, Bennett created and promoted a “Two Rivers Policy”. This policy outlined the hydroelectric development of two major rivers within the province of British Columbia: the Peace River and the Columbia River. Bennett wanted to develop the Peace River to fuel northern expansion and development, while using the Columbia River to provide power to growing industries throughout the province.

The ongoing negotiations of the Columbia River Treaty provided a unique opportunity for W.A.C. Bennett to fulfil his Two Rivers Policy by working around British Columbia's monetary issues. During the 1950s, the government of British Columbia lacked the funds necessary to develop both the Columbia and Peace rivers and BC Electric was unwilling to pay for hydroelectric development on these rivers. Therefore the BC Energy Board recommended that hydroelectric development be undertaken as a public venture. On 1 August 1961 Bill 5 was proposed to the BC legislature calling for provincial control of BC Electric and the Peace River Power Development Company. Later that month, Bill 5 was passed into law paving the way for the creation of BC Hydro in 1963, continuing Bennett’s vision of “public power”. BC Hydro consisted of BC Electric, the Peace River Power Development Company, and the BC Power Commission. The creation of a government owned power entity allowed Bennett to finance the dams on the Columbia at lower interest rates, thus saving money. Next, the BC-Canada Agreement 8 July 1963 designated BC Hydro as the entity responsible for Canadian dams outlined in the treaty, and annual operations of the treaty.

Lastly, Bennett directed the negotiations for a Canadian Entitlement sales agreement which provided the funds to develop both the Columbia and the Peace rivers simultaneously. Since it was illegal for Canada to export power during the 1950s and 1960s, the funds provided by the Columbia River Treaty were the only affordable way for British Columbia to develop both rivers, thus making the Treaty integral to Bennett's vision of power in British Columbia. With the cash received from the Canadian Entitlement Clause (approximately 274.8 million over the first 30 years) the BC government developed power facilities on the Peace River, fulfilling Bennett’s Two River Policy.

In short, BC pursued the Columbia River Treaty because it provided them with a unique opportunity for hydroelectric development that otherwise would not have been possible (due to the financial situation of the province during that period). It was the hope that these developments would promote industrial growth within the province and help grow the economy.

Under the terms of the agreement, Canada was required to provide 19.12 km³ (15.5 million acre-feet (Maf)) of usable reservoir storage behind three large dams. This was accomplished with 1.73 km³ (1.4 Maf) provided by Duncan Dam (1967), 8.76 km³ (7.1 Maf) provided by Arrow Dam (1968) [subsequently renamed the Hugh Keenleyside Dam], and 8.63 km³ (7.0 Maf) provided by Mica Dam (1973). The latter dam, however, was built higher than required by the Treaty, and provides a total of 14.80 km³ (12 Maf) including 6.17 km³ (5.0) Maf of Non Treaty Storage space. Unless otherwise agreed, the three Canadian Treaty projects are required to operate for flood protection and increased power generation at-site and downstream in both Canada and the United States, although the allocation of power storage operations among the three projects is at Canadian discretion.

The Treaty also allowed the U.S. to build the Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in Montana which provides a further 6.14 km³ (4.98 Maf) of active storage in the Koocanusa reservoir. Although the name sounds like it might be of aboriginal origins, it is actually a concatenation of the first three letters from Kootenai / Kootenay, Canada and USA, and was the winning entry in a contest to name the reservoir. Water behind the Libby dam floods back 42 miles (68 km) into Canada, while the water released from the dam returns to Canada just upstream of Kootenay Lake. Libby Dam began operation in March 1972 and is operated for power, flood control, and other benefits at-site and downstream in both Canada and the United States, and neither country makes any payment for resulting downstream benefits.

With the exception of the Mica Dam, which was designed and constructed with a powerhouse, the Canadian Treaty projects were initially built for the sole purpose of regulating water flow. In 2002, however, a joint venture between the Columbia Power Corporation and the Columbia Basin Trust constructed the 185 MW Arrow Lakes Hydro project in parallel with the Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar, 35 years after the storage dam was originally completed. The Duncan Dam remains a pure storage project, and has no at-site power generation facilities.

The Canadian and U.S. Entities defined by the Treaty, and appointed by the national governments, manage most of the Treaty required activities. The Canadian Entity is B.C. Hydro and Power Authority, and the U.S. Entity is the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwestern Division Engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Treaty also established a Permanent Engineering Board, consisting of equal members from Canada and the U.S., that reports to the governments annually on Treaty results, any deviations from the operating plans, and assists the Entities in resolving any disputes.

The Columbia River has the greatest annual drainage as compared to all other rivers along the Pacific coast. Before the introduction of dams on the river, the changes in water level rose and fell predictably with the seasons and a nine meter displacement existed between the spring snowmelt highs and fall lows. After the dams were built, the river changed unpredictably and in some areas the previous maximum and minimum water levels were altered by several tens of meters. No longer linked to the seasons, water conditions became subject to United States power demands. After the damming, the water during high floods began to cover much of the valley’s arable land - and when it was drawn down to produce power it carried away fertile soil, leaving agricultural land useless. Additionally, it is estimated that the habitat of 8,000 deer, 600 elk, 1,500 moose, 2,000 black bears, 70,000 ducks and geese was flooded due to the creation of the reservoirs.

The introduction of a dam affects every living thing in the surrounding area, both up and downstream. Upstream change is obvious as water levels rise and submerge nesting grounds and migration routes for water fowl. As water levels in storage reservoirs change throughout the year, aquatic habitat and food source availability become unreliable. Plankton, a main staple of salmon and trout’s diet, is especially sensitive to changes in water level. Nutrient rich sediment, that would previously have flowed downstream, becomes trapped in the reservoirs above dams, resulting in changes in water properties and temperatures on either side of the barrier. A difference in water temperature of 9 degrees celsius was once measured between the Columbia and its tributary the Snake River. When silt settles to the bottom of the river or reservoir it covers rocks, ruins spawning grounds and eliminates all hiding place for smaller fish to escape from predators. Alteration in water quality, such as acidity or gas saturation, may not be visually dramatic, but can be deadly to certain types of aquatic life. The Columbia River, with its series of dams and reservoirs, is influenced by a complex combination of these effects, making it difficult to predict or understand exactly how the animal populations will react.

Salmon and Steelhead trout travel from the ocean upriver to various spawning grounds. The construction of multiple dams on the Columbia threatened this fishery as the fish struggled to complete the migration upstream. Some dams along the Columbia River do have fish ladders installed, such as Rock Island and Bonneville Dams, but most do not.

Migration downriver is also problematic after dams are built. Pre-dam currents on the Columbia efficiently carried fry to the ocean, but the introduction of dams and reservoirs changed the flow of the river, forcing the young fish to exert much more energy to swim through slack waters. In addition, many fish are killed by the dam turbines as they try to swim further downstream. It is unclear exactly how many fish are killed in the turbines, but estimates range between 8-12% per dam. If a fish hatches high upstream they will have to swim through multiple dams, leading to possible cumulative losses of over 50-80% of the migrating fry. Efforts to make turbines safer for fish to pass through are ongoing in hopes of reducing fish loses. While hatcheries appear to be quite successful for some species of fish, their efforts to increase fish populations will not be effective until up and downstream migration is improved. There is no one solution to improving the salmon and trout populations on the Columbia as it is the cumulative effects of the dams that are killing the fish. From 1965 to 1969, 27, 312 acres were logged along the Columbia River to remove timber from the new flood plain. The slashing of vegetation along the shoreline weakened soil stability and made the land susceptible to wind erosion, creating sandstorms. Conversely, in wet periods, the cleared areas turned into vast mud flats.

In the late 1940s, the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch began studying the impacts the dams were having on the area’s animal inhabitants. Their findings resulted in a small sum being designated for further research and harm mitigation. Their work, in collaboration with local conservation groups, became focused on preserving Kokanee stock jeopardized by the Duncan Dam which ruined kilometers of spawning grounds key to Kokanee, Bull Trout, and Rainbow Trout survival. Since Rainbow and Bull Trout feed on Kokanee, it was essential Kokanee stock remained strong. As a result, BC Hydro funded the construction of Meadow Creek Spawning Channel in 1967, which is 3.3 km (2 miles) long, and at the time was longest human-made spawning ground and first made for fresh water sport fish. The channel supports 250,000 spawning Kokanee every year, resulting in 10-15 million fry, with the mean egg to fry survival rate at around 45%. BC Hydro has also provided some funding to Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area to help alleviate damage done by Duncan Dam to surrounding habitats. The area is a seasonal home to many unique bird species, such as Tundra Swans, Greater White-Fronted Geese and many birds of prey.[57] Such species are sensitive to changes in the river as they rely on it for food and their nesting grounds are typically found quite close to the water. BC Hydro, in partnership with the Province of BC and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has also been contributing to the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program since 1988.

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