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Osoyoos-based Columbia River Treaty workshop highlights Okanagan impacts

The Hugh Keenleyside Dam near Castlegar was built as part of the Columbia River Treaty.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
October 15, 2015 - 1:00 PM

PENTICTON - A public workshop held recently in Osoyoos to discuss the Columbia River Treaty highlighted Okanagan issues stemming from the 50-year-old pact.

The workshop, which took place at the Sonora Centre in Osoyoos on Oct. 7, was held in the Okanagan to raise the profile of the treaty’s impacts on the valley and prioritize those impacts for further discussion as Canada and the U.S. begin decade-long discussions to modify the treaty in 2024.

Organized by the Canadian Water Resources Association and the Adaption to Climate Change Team at Simon Fraser University, the workshop brought together presenters from local and provincial governments, First Nations and academics.

“The year 2024 will be the first opportunity either nation will have to renegotiate the (then) 60-year-old treaty,” Canadian Water Resources Association representative and geoscientist Dr. Brian Guy says.

Both nations are required to give notice 10 years in advance of renegotiations to the treaty. Canada and the U.S. expressed interest in maintaining the treaty last year, but with modifications. Since then both nations have initialized that process, which is not going to be completed today or tomorrow, Guy notes.

The Okanagan River is part of the Columbia system, and as such has been impacted by the treaty in ways not considered when the treaty was first ratified in 1964, Guy says.

“There are a lot of benefits, but there have been impacts too. It was originally thought the impacts in Canada would simply be flooded land, but as it turns out, those impacts have resulted in Americans getting basically free irrigation water through the water stored behind Canadian dams, and they’ve used that to build a really solid fruit industry that now outcompetes our industry in the Okanagan,” he says.

University of British Columbia representative John Wagner says recent research indicating Canadian agricultural lands were lost to flooding through the treaty, while unintended benefits to American agriculture worth millions of dollars through expanded U.S. agricultural capacity have taken place. He says now is the time for Canadians to renegotiate the treaty to 'more equitably share the agricultural benefits of Canadian water storage with farmers in B.C.'

Another aspect of the treaty that has relevance in the Okanagan concerns salmon migration.

“The dams on the Columbia have impeded the salmon runs for years, especially the Grand Coulee dam, which prevents salmon from reaching the Upper Columbia and Okanagan River systems. The First Nations on both sides of the border want both countries to work into the discussion a way to get the salmon up past Grand Coulee to the upper part of the Columbia. It’s a huge issue for them,” Guy says, adding both countries don’t see it as an issue because the Grand Coulee dam was built 26 years prior to the treaty. “The two governments are saying that’s a different issue, but the First Nations are saying salmon is everything to us. Salmon isn’t just a recreational pursuit — they’re a salmon people, so they think the treaty made things worse. There is a tie between the treaty and salmon, and they want to get salmon back over the Coulee dam and into the Kootenays and the Okanagan."

Guy also says First Nations were excluded from the original treaty, adding assessment impacts at the time underestimated the loss to fisheries and ecosystems.

The workshop identified other local factors such as the a burgeoning population, increasing competition for water,  and the impacts of climate change.

Okanagan Nation Grand Chief and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs President Stewart Phillip says an opportunity is now present to 'renegotiate the aging treaty in a spirit of collaboration across international boundaries, with First Nations at the table.'

“In the face of the devastation of climate change, it is crucial for the sake of our grandchildren and their grandchildren that the eco-system, including ensuring salmon passage to the Upper Columbia, become central to any new treaty,” Phillip says.

Workshop participants also agreed discussions surrounding Columbia River Treaty renegotiations need to include local populations and First Nations. More broadly based discussions that would include the entire Columbia Basin, including the Okanagan and Similkameen River basins should also take place.

The workshop also concluded a neutral convenor in the form of a citizens coalition could be put in place to monitor progress of treaty negotiations and ensure concerns and interests expressed at the workshop are considered.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad at sarstad@infonews.ca or call 250-488-3065. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015
InfoTel News Ltd

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