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Columbia River Treaty

The United States’ Columbia River Treaty with Canada governs hydropower and flood control on the 1,200-mile Columbia River. The current treaty, implemented in 1964, does not consider the needs of fish, a healthy river, or the treaty fishing rights and cultural resources that are now fully protected under modern laws.


The U.S. and Canada negotiated the Treaty to last at least 60 years (2024). The Treaty allows either party to terminate it but they must provide a ten-year notice of their intent to do so. That ten-year window opens in September 2014. Seeing that date on the horizon, CRITFC started taking actions during this biennium to secure seats at the table for the tribes to participate in the analyses and decisions leading up to 2014. Now 15 Columbia Basin tribes are actively working to reshape the Columbia River Treaty to protect and benefit tribal culture and resources.

The impacts of the Columbia River Treaty are second only to the decision to dam the Columbia in the 1930s. The Treaty required the construction of Duncan, Arrow, and Mica dams in Canada and allowed Libby Dam to be built in the U.S., creating more than 20 million acre-feet of new storage. Under the treaty, the U.S. paid Canada $64.4 million to provide 8.95 million acre-feet of storage for flood control in the lower Columbia, but it is only guaranteed through 2024. The U.S. returns to Canada half of the power the new Canadian storage produces in the U.S. This power, called the Canadian Entitlement, is worth on average $300 million a year.

The tribes’ participation in the Columbia River Treaty 2014/2024 Review is critical for protecting tribal rights and interests, including improving ecosystem functions and ensuring favorable conditions for other tribal resources.

In fall 2010, the Columbia Basin tribes began participating in the Treaty Review. The tribes gained the agreement of the U.S. to regard ecosystem function as coequal with flood control and power production during the Treaty Review and to include measures to restore and preserve tribal resources and culture.

The tribes are also seeking representation on the U.S. negotiating team if changes to the Columbia River Treaty are discussed with Canada. The tribes were not consulted during the initial negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty; as a result, the Treaty fails to include tribes or tribal interests.

As 2010 ended, the tribes’ small work group finished reviewing the Treaty Review Phase I and Supplemental Reports and began work on an Ecological Assessment to analyze the impacts on ecosystem functions and other tribal resources. The Phase I Report, narrowly focused on the twin obligations of power and flood control, provides baseline information about post-2024 conditions both with and without the current Columbia River Treaty. The Ecological Assessment will provide a baseline look at the Treaty’s impact on ecosystem functions.

The Columbia Basin tribes will continue holding work sessions on a recurring basis.

Intertribal Cooperation

Thirty-two tribes (fifteen in the US and seventeen in Canada) have come together to assist in the treaty review and participate in creating the next treaty that will incorporate ecosystem requirements.

The Columbia River Treaty has locked in 1960s priorities that do not reflect the modern values and considerations of our time.
Paul Lumley

Executive Director, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Chronology of Canada/US relations regarding the Columbia River

A New Treaty for a New Era

CRITFC Executive Director Paul Lumley’s opinion-editorial “A New Treaty for a New Era” on the need for a modernized Columbia River Treaty appeared in the 4 May 2013 issue of the Oregonian.

Mica Dam

Mica Dam spans the Columbia River 80 miles north of Revelstoke, British Columbia. It was one of three Canadian dams called for under the terms of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty. Mica Dam is one of the largest earth fill dams in the world and is the furthest upstream dam on the Columbia River.
1909 Boundary Waters Treaty established principles and procedures regarding transboundary waters of the U.S. and Canada. The Treaty creates the International Joint Commission (IJC) to study and resolve issues related to boundary waters.
1944 U.S. and Canada agree to request that the IJC study the potential for development of the Columbia River for several beneficial uses.
1945 International Columbia River Engineering Board (ICREB) concludes further development is feasible and in the interest of both nations and undertakes additional technical studies.
1948 Vanport floodHeavy rains over the course of two weeks in late May flood the lower river, breaching an elevated railroad bed – not a dike built to withstand floodwaters – flooding Vanport, Oregon, resulting in over 50 deaths. While the Columbia River Treaty storage dams have provided substantial flood control benefits, with substantial costs to the ecosystem, note that the Treaty dams would not have prevented the 1948 flood had they been in place at that time, nor could the dams today wholly control runoff of that magnitude and prevent substantial flooding.
1959 The ICREB delivers its technical reports to the IJC. The focus of the U.S. and Canada is coordinated development of the river for hydropower, with minor modifications for flood control. The IJC recommends principles for apportioning the benefits of this development.
1961 President Eisenhower signing treatyPresident Eisenhower signs and the U.S. Senate ratifies the Columbia River Treaty. Canada and British Columbia (BC) engage in domestic negotiations regarding the Treaty.
1964 Canada and BC agree on Treaty implementation, giving control of the Treaty’s implementation to BC. The Parties add a Protocol to the Treaty and Canada ratifies the Treaty. Treaty has no expiration date but either country may terminate it beginning in 2024 with at least ten years notice.
2014 Either nation may terminate the Treaty beginning in September 2024, provided that nation has provided at least ten years notice. September 2014 is the latest date such notice may be given if a nation wishes to terminate the Treaty at the earliest possible date.
2024 Under the Treaty, the assured annual flood control operation at Treaty storage dams in Canada automatically ends, meaning the U.S. will no longer have guaranteed flood risk protection in Canada. September 2024 is also the earliest date that either country may terminate the Treaty, so long as they have provided at least ten years notice of an intention to do so.

Key Terms of the Columbia River Treaty

  • Canada agreed to build three dams with 15.5 million acre feet (maf) of storage and coordinate the operation of these new storage facilities with the U.S. hydroelectric power supply system in order to optimize hydroelectric power production and to provide flood control. The effect of these storage reservoirs is to move the annual flooding from the downriver areas to the upper Columbia Basin.
  • Canada guaranteed 8.45 maf (increased later to 8.95 maf) of flood control space in the three reservoirs to reduce flooding risks in the U.S. Additional storage space is “on call” in the Canadian reservoirs to help control large floods in the U.S.
  • Canada is entitled to 50% (Canadian Entitlement) of the additional power generated in the U.S. because of the new Canadian storage (additional power generated is “downstream benefits”).
  • Canada sold the first 30 years of the Canadian Entitlement to a U.S. consortium for almost $254 million. The U.S. now delivers the Canadian Entitlement to BC in both energy (approximately 500 average megawatts) and peak capacity (approximately 1,200 megawatts). BC largely sells this power on the Westwide wholesale power market, annual value of $150 million to $300 million depending on power prices.
  • The U.S. was allowed to build Libby Dam, with 5 maf of storage, with 42 miles of the 90-mile long reservoir backing up into Canada. Each country keeps the downstream flood control and power benefits from Libby realized in their country. Termination of the Treaty does not affect the Libby authorization.
  • The U.S. paid Canada almost $65 million in the 1960s for the flood control benefits from the Canadian projects, representing 50% of the estimated value of the flood control losses avoided in the U.S. from 1968 through September 2024.
  • After September 2024, if there are no changes to the Treaty, Canada’s obligation to guarantee 8.95 maf of flood control space to the U.S. expires. This is replaced in the Treaty by an obligation on the part of Canada to provide flood control when “called-upon” in years when the U.S. cannot effectively manage flood risk with the use of its own projects, with the U.S. paying the costs of the operation. In any event, the U.S. will incur additional costs and obligations in order to receive flood control benefits from Canada.
  • The construction and operation of the Treaty storage dams has had an adverse effect on the fish and wildlife, riparian, water quality, and cultural resources of the Columbia River, effects and values not recognized or addressed in any formal way in the Treaty. Effective Use and Called Upon operations are likely to result in even greater adverse effects on resident and anadromous fish populations, wildlife and cultural resources. If the Treaty is not modernized, there will be significant additional adverse effects on ecosystem function and the spring freshet available for resident and migratory fish and other species will be dramatically reduced.
  • Under the terms of the Treaty, in order to “call upon” Canada to provide flood control storage after September 2024, the U.S. will first have to operate its reservoirs for “effective use” for flood control. Under this scenario, federal projects, such as Grand Coulee, Dworshak, Brownlee, Libby, Hungry Horse, and other storage reservoirs in the Columbia Basin, may need to operate at much lower elevations in January through May to make room for the spring runoff.
  • If the Treaty is not terminated or modernized, the U.S. will remain obligated to return the Canadian Entitlement, the Canadian share of the downstream power benefits.
  • In developing this coordinated system operation under the Treaty with Canada, the U.S. did not consult with the tribes nor consider the effect of the Treaty on the tribes’ cultural and natural resources. Not only were the tribes not consulted during the Treaty’s negotiation, the tribes have also been excluded from its governance and implementation. The Treaty does not specifically allow for considerations of critical tribal cultural resources. The coordinated power and flood control system created under the Treaty degraded multiple ecosystem functions of rivers, First Foods, natural resources, and tribal customs and identities. The Treaty limits what can be accomplished with non-Treaty water agreements to address these issues and meet tribal resource priorities.
  • Neither the development nor the implementation of the Treaty have involved the people and communities of the Columbia River Basin in any significant degree. Yet river management decisions under the domestic law and policy of both nations include a high degree of public engagement and involvement. Developing and implementing a modernized Treaty will have to accommodate this change in some fashion.