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Indigenous-led ecosystem studies a key element of Columbia River Treaty talks

While the Columbia River Treaty was borne out of a flood control and power generation agreement, the negotiations for the modernization of the international water-sharing agreement have included a third principle of ecosystem function.
Koocanusa Reservoir. Robyn Duncan file.

While the Columbia River Treaty was borne out of a flood control and power generation agreement, the negotiations for the modernization of the international water-sharing agreement have included a third principle of ecosystem function.

Led by the Syilx Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Secwepemc First Nations — collectively the Columbia Basin Indigenous Nations — the concept of ecosystem function has been a key aspect of the treaty modernization.

The studies are part of a Columbia River Treaty Ecosystem Function subcommittee, which is led by the three Columbia Basin Indigenous nations, and includes representatives from provincial and federal agencies and consultants.

Some of those experts weighed in on what it means during a virtual information session last week.

Simply put, ecosystem function work is driven by the consideration of floodplains, riparian and wetlands, riverine and reservoir ecosystems, anadromous species and ecosystem productivity.

Those principles in a new treaty can be achieved by creating flexibility on the Canadian side, as well as utilizing a collaboratively developed computer model to track performance measures that would inform the flexibility needed to meet ecosystem function goals.

“Negotiations are actively exploring and building the concept of domestic Canadian flexibility, so creating space and opportunity within the management of the reservoirs to change operations to meet ecosystem function objectives,” said Bill Green, who is representing the Ktunaxa Nation in the treaty discussions.

The Columbia River Treaty was a water sharing agreement ratified between Canada and the United States in 1964. It was created as a flood control and power generation agreement that led to the construction of three dams and four reservoirs on the Canadian side and one dam in Montana.

However, the treaty has been historically criticized for a lack of consultation, particularly with First Nations, as the inundation of the reservoirs adversely impacted Indigenous communities, cultural values and ecosystems, as well as forestry, agriculture and tourism sectors.

Though the treaty has no end date, it can be unilaterally terminated from September 2024 onward, provided 10 years notice is given. The United States and Canada began treaty modernization talks four years ago, and the Ktunaxa, Okanagan, and Secwepemc Nations were later included as participants with observer status.

Water management in reservoirs and the relationship to floodplain, riparian and wetland ecosystems was a topic led by Steward Rood, with the University of Lethbridge. He punctuated his point by showing photographs of the Duncan reservoir at full pool and another one of it drawn down to a barren and exposed landscape.

“It looks like a lake when it’s full, but during draw down, it’s pretty bleak,” Rood said. “This annual pattern of inundation and exposure is lethal to all vegetation and as a result, what we’ve lost is that habitat, that community, that ecosystem which we desire.”

Rood spoke about the challenges faced by vegetation in the reservoir drawdown zones — namely cottonwoods, riparian shrubs such as willows and riparian herbaceous, such as horsetails and sedges — and the need for encouraging native vegetation growth along shorelines through predictable reservoir elevations in different management scenarios.

Another study led by Ryan MacDonald investigated how streamflow regimes for the Canadian Columbia River have been highly altered since the construction of the four dams and the impacts on Black Cottonwoods and White Sturgeon, two species with streamflow requirements that serve as indicators of functioning free-flowing river systems.

“Ultimately, the idea here is to restore flow regimes that are important for key species and important for river functions,” said MacDonald, “and the objectives here are ultimately to manage reservoir levels and allow us to do that and promote these habitats that are lacking in the system currently.”

Richard Bussanich, with Okanagan Nation Alliance, and Wendell Challenger, with LGL Limited, both spoke on the anadromous salmon ecosystem element and the goal of considering impacts of flow regimes on downstream and upstream migration.

The restoring anadromous salmon study is also co-ordinated with the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative, which seeks to explore solutions for fish passage over the network of dams in the Columbia Basin.

Challenger also noted a larger Columbia Integrated Salmon Life Cycle Model is currently being built out that will be integrating into inputs such as water management, fisheries management, land management and climate change, which will help generate individual performance metrics.

“So what we’re looking at is mainly their survival and movements as they leave Canada and move through the U.S.,” said Challenger, “and then how different flow regimes and management decisions can impact the flows they’re going to experience and therefore the success they’ll have in the Columbia system.”

The Canadian delegation, which includes representation from the B.C. Government and the Ktunaxa, Syilx-Okanagan, and Secwepemc Nations, last met with the United States negotiators for informal talks in May.

Another round of negotiations is expected to occur in early August.

More information on the virtual information session, including documentation and slide shows from presenters, can be found on the Columbia River Treaty website.

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Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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