FAUQUIER B.C.— A show of hands in the Fauquier community hall June 15 revealed a lot about the disgust and exasperation that residents in and around this Arrow Lakes community feel for the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.
Two-thirds of the approximately 50 people who attended the government-hosted town meeting, favored ending the treaty when it expires in 2024 and negotiating a higher price for the water it stores for the U.S.
A small number voted to maintain but improve the treaty to address five decades of perceived environmental, social and economic wrongs.
Many questioned whether their views will make any difference and expressed more anger at their own provincial government and utility than the treaty, itself. Very few were undecided.
“We’re losing acres and acres and acres and all of it ends up in the reservoir,” Sid Parker, an author, former mayor of Revelstoke and former member of the Canadian House of Commons, said of land lost to erosion and sediment from the lake-level ups and downs of treaty reservoir operations. “The money is never going to replace what’s happened with the Columbia River Treaty.”
Janet Spicer, an organic farmer who lives in Nakusp, about 35 miles to the north, agrees.
“If the treaty is terminated, I would no longer feel I live in an occupied zone. A zone occupied by the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” she told the crowd to applause.
“Most of the farmers didn’t make their living on their land, but it sustained their lifestyle,” said Vivien Berry, 53, a resident of nearby Burton, said of logging and other enterprises that helped support families before the region was flooded to meet Canada’s treaty obligations.
“The manner in how it was done was the issue,” she said. “We didn’t have the critical mass. Even if we all held hands and jumped up and down, this was going to happen… It doesn’t matter what the 1,000 people in this area say… What matters is what the Americans say.”
Despite the strong feelings expressed in Fauquier, British Columbians at meetings elsewhere in the province have generally favored retooling the treaty, but not allowing it to terminate, Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of the province’s Columbia River Treaty Review team, explained after the meeting.
Bill Bennett, lead minister for British Columbia on treaty discussion with the U.S., also favors retooling to termination.
At stake is a treaty-mandated payment known as the “Canadian Entitlement” that the U.S. federal and public utilities on the Columbia River dam system pay to Canada to compensate for the benefit to downstream hydropower generation from regulated river flow from Canada’s huge treaty reservoirs.
The payment is made in electricity delivered on demand to BC Hydro, the provincial utility that operates BC dams.
Both Bonneville and the Army Corps say the payment amounts to $250 million to $350 million annually. North Central Washington’s mid-Columbia PUDs in Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties deliver 27.5 percent of this energy.
PUD officials say the formula used at treaty time overstated the benefit of treaty storage to hydropower. They put the true value at about $25 million to $35 million annually.
The PUDs do not have a vote in treaty negotiations, but all three favor ending the treaty unless the entitlement can be reduced. They say treaty payments over the years that have enabled British Columbia to build most all of its 18 Columbia Basin dams, most of which now also generate power and revenue.
The province averages $260 million in average annual revenue from Canadian dams and treaty revenue. More than 40 percent of that comes from its Columbia Basin, government statistics show.
Provincial officials and consultants at the Fauquier meeting say the Canadian Entitlement is worth closer to $100 million to $300 million annually and has a far greater benefit as a water source for parched Central Washington than for hydropower production. They’re hoping to pin the entitlement on water through renegotiation.
Entitlement funds have also helped create Canadian jobs, build provincial parks, control flooding, they say.
“The U.S. has not really understood the true benefit they have received from this treaty… Eichenberger told the audience in Fauquier. “I agree strongly that the U.S. is undervaluing the Canadian Entitlement.”
Eichenberger said the province will release a paper “in a couple of weeks” that details its view of what the Canadian Entitlement is really worth.
But true benefit, as one government consultant said, varies from person to person.
“If the First Nations had a bigger hand in what’s going on, it would benefit everybody, Virgil Seymour, a member of the Sinixt band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation told the group. He made the drive up from his home in Inchelium, Wash. The band has tribal lands on both sides of the Canadian border.
Canada’s tribes, called the First Nations, were not present at the Fauquier meeting. Eichenberger said the government is working them, at the tribes’ request, independently of other public proceedings.
The U.S. tribes and representatives of the four U.S. states that share the Columbia River Basin have already engaged in intense talks over what the U.S. should adopt as its official position.
“We started 6 or 7 years ago and already made our points and delivered them to the government,” Seymour said, encouraging Canada’s First Nations to organize and form a common position. “The CRT needs to be about more than flood control and hydropower.”