Guest Opinions

The Columbia River Treaty: A cornerstone of the economic vitality of the Northwest

Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee

Canadian and American officials will soon meet to discuss the renewal of one of the most enduring examples of our strong partnership — the Columbia River Treaty.

The Columbia River Treaty is a quiet cornerstone of the economic vitality of the Pacific Northwest region and one of the most successful international agreements of its kind. Under the treaty’s terms, three dams and reservoirs in British Columbia, and one dam in Montana that floods the Kootenay Valley into B.C., provide flood protection and help generate hydroelectricity downstream in the United States.

For more than 50 years, this benefit-sharing agreement has reliably prevented major flooding in the lower Columbia River Basin. It’s helped manage water flows to generate carbon-free electricity. It’s fueled technology booms from the jet age to cloud computing. And it has provided stable water levels for irrigation, shipping and recreational use across the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

The treaty also has become a critical platform for recent efforts to protect endangered salmon and to begin restoring some of the river’s natural functions. The treaty has done all this while helping provide the Pacific Northwest with the lowest electricity rates in the U.S.

The Canadian government has been working closely with the Province of British Columbia, Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and communities within Canada’s portion of the Columbia River basin. We look forward to sitting down with our American partners to talk about the future of the treaty, and to take stock of changes that have occurred since the treaty was ratified in 1964.

Though the treaty has provided benefits to Canada, there are ongoing significant costs for holding back flood waters on the British Columbia portion of the river basin. Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and local communities have dealt with drastic fluctuations in reservoir levels causing environmental, economic and cultural losses for the benefit of our downstream neighbors.

The original objective of the Columbia River Treaty was to create and share benefits between the United States and Canada. For Canada, the starting point for discussion on the modernization of the treaty is recognition of the multiple benefits created by the treaty in the U.S., and the continued equitable sharing of these benefits. This must remain our shared goal going forward.

We see a tremendous opportunity to build on a great foundation by continuing to improve environmental conditions and the many economic and cultural benefits that can flow from a renewed treaty. We need to strive for a flexible, basin-wide approach to the challenges of climate change, while also modernizing flood risk management and producing carbon-free electricity.

The Columbia River Treaty has been an important element of the Canada-U.S. partnership. By approaching renewal of this agreement together in a spirit of shared benefits, we can both improve on the existing benefits while addressing new priorities and needs.

Brandon Lee, consul general of Canada, is accredited to Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and Washington. He is based at the Canadian Consulate General in Seattle.