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U.S. And Canada Seek To Modernize Columbia River Treaty

The Columbia River at Vantage, WA

The Columbia River at Vantage, WA

Chris Phan - Creative Commons

Portlanders may know of the flooding of 1948 because of its devastating impact on the town of Vanport, which was destroyed when a railroad berm was breached by record-breaking water levels.

But the flooding also served as a wake-up call for the Army Corps of Engineers, which was in charge of mitigating flood damage on the Columbia River. The dams on the Columbia at the time only created enough reservoir capacity to handle 6 percent of the annual flow. To put that in perspective, the Mississippi and Colorado rivers have capacity to hold 200 and 400 percent of their annual flows, respectively. The Corps had to find new places to store water, and the only feasible sites were in Canada.

So began a long process of negotiations that concluded in 1964 with the implementation of the Columbia River Treaty. Under the agreement, the Canadian government built three dams to store and control the release of water downriver. In exchange, Canada received payments from the U.S. and got some of the energy generated by the dams on the U.S. stretch of the Columbia.

The treaty doesn’t expire, but the parties could choose to terminate the treaty in 2024, so long as they give 10 years notice. That makes 2014 a significant year for the future of the treaty, and negotiators on both sides of the border are expected to hash out a way to update the pact. Last week, the stakeholders on the U.S. side of the treaty finalized their recommended tweaks. Canada has not yet released its final proposal, but from a draft released earlier this year, it’s clear both sides believe they’re currently getting a raw deal.


  • Barbara Cosens: Professor of water policy and water law at University of Idaho

Editor’s note 12/17/13 9:50 am: This post has been changed to reflect some of the details of the treaty.

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