John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower at the signing of the Columbia River Treaty, January 1961. (White House Photo Office)

Talks to begin with Trump administration on Columbia River Treaty renewal

U.S. wants to pay less for flood control, B.C. wants agriculture recognized

When the B.C. government tried to get talks going on renewing the Columbia River Treaty as it reached its 50th anniversary in 2014, the Barack Obama administration didn’t seem interested.

Now the Donald Trump administration is starting discussions, adding the cross-border flood control and hydroelectric agreement to a group of increasingly hostile actions on trade and relations with Canada.

Kootenay West MLA Katrine Conroy is representing B.C. in the talks between Canada and the U.S., with public meetings underway this week to gauge public expectations in the region that saw valleys flooded and communities abandoned to construct the Duncan, Mica and Keenleyside dams.

Then-energy minister Bill Bennett announced in 2014 that B.C. was extending the treaty another 10 years, then told a conference in Spokane that the U.S. should pay more for the electricity and flood control that comes at the expense of fertile B.C. valleys.

Conroy acknowledges that the U.S. side tends to believe it’s paying too much, with an annual share of half of the electricity value generated downstream. She inherits a deal that did not concern itself with salmon runs, wiped out by a U.S. dam in the 1930s, or the effect the dams would have on the Kootenay fruit growing industry to produce a stable water supply for U.S. fruit and other farming.

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“It is one of the best international water agreements in the world,” Conroy said in a legislature debate on the treaty in April. “When it comes to just power and power generation and flood control, it was ahead of its time in 1964. But thank goodness things have changed, because in 1964, they also didn’t consult with anyone in the basin.”

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok questioned Conroy on B.C. and Canada’s position going into discussions, and issues such as samon restoration that have arisen since the treaty was struck.

“The Americans need our water for their agriculture, their wine, their apples and all those sorts of things, and for navigation and shipping,” Clovechok said. “There’s recreational real estate involved here. There are a lot of reservoirs, which very, very wealthy Americans have very large houses around, which they’re concerned about and certainly are lobbying their government, and also industrial water supplies.”

Clovechok said it’s obvious that the U.S. “negotiates from the State Department, not from the governor’s office.”

Conroy declined to comment on Clovechok’s q uestion about whether B.C. is prepared to reduce any downstream benefits from the treaty, except to say that B.C.’s objective is to get “equitable or better benefits.

“I don’t think we did many, many years ago, and I think it’s our turn,” she said.

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