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Ethics, Ecology and Sovereignty - The Renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty

Author(s): 
Chrys Ostrander

Water is life. Water is our relation.
Water bonds us to our ancestry, our descendants and our land.”

Excerpt from the Syilx Nation Siwɬkʷ (Water) Declaration, July 31, 2014

 

“As the Indigenous people of the Columbia Basin, we have all been salmon people, tied to the river as sustenance and as a sacred relation. We have survived the devastating impacts of colonization to our lands, resources, and peoples and continue to assert our rights to self-determination and to work for social justice.” --Okanagan Nation Alliance

tmixw – that which gives us life – is a nsyilxcən word that most closely translates as “ecology.” tmixw includes everything that is alive: the land, water, insects, people, animals, plants and medicines.

By Chrys Ostrander for Inland FoodWise Online, Thanksgiving, 2021 (Listen to this article)

Picture of the Columbia RiverThanksgiving is one of those days when the North American descendants of settlers have an opportunity to reflect on their relationship with the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Today, as we face so many challenges, more people of all backgrounds have come to realize that all of our futures are bound together and that our survival depends on masses of people adopting the kind of reverence for all creation that forms the moral center of many Indigenous cultures. It's a time to realize that we are all Indigenous to this planet and it's long overdue that we started acting like it. For T-Day, 2021, I offer some thoughts on one point of contact between cultures, the troubled Columbia River Treaty process, and a way for you to add your voice in support of forging new approaches to collective stewardship of our natural world.

The Columbia River Treaty is a 1961 agreement between Canada and the United States on the development and operation of dams in the upper Columbia River basin for power and flood control benefits in both countries. Four dams were constructed under this treaty: three in the Canadian province of British Columbia (Duncan Dam, Mica Dam, Keenleyside Dam) and one in the U.S. state of Montana (Libby Dam).

In November 2011, the Province of British Columbia initiated a Columbia River Treaty Review process to evaluate future decision options, including possible continuation, amendment or termination of the Columbia River Treaty. In 2013 the Province decided to continue the Columbia River Treaty and seek improvements within its existing framework. In December 2013, the parties to the treaty, Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, delivered their final recommendations to the U.S. Department of State that negotiates the terms with the Canadian government. In the fall of 2016, the State Department proceeded with negotiations to modernize the Treaty. The United States and Canada are currently negotiating the Columbia River Treaty. The process is driven by the expiration of some flood control provisions, the ten-year time frame required for either party to give notice of withdrawal from the treaty, and the desire among many communities who live in the watershed to restore the Columbia River to health.

The treaty has always been limited in scope to include only issues related to power generation and Image showing location of Columbia River Treaty Damsflood control. Many in the region believe modernizing the Columbia River Treaty is a critical opportunity for Canada and the United States to join together to acknowledge damage done, right historic wrongs, and commit to stewardship of this great river in the face of climate change. They advocate for applying socially and scientifically informed ethical norms in the negotiation process that fully account for the way people and other living things are affected by the way the river is managed. Indigenous communities and their allies and accomplices want the negotiations to include more qualitative assessments of healthy 'ecosystem-based function,' not just quantifiable assessments of 'ecosystem services.' Ironically, a predecessor treaty from around 1909 did include fish and wildlife conservation in its provisions, but those values were abandoned in the 1930s when negotiations for the Columbia River Treaty began.

“Ecosystem-based function is a way to achieve a healthier river and healthier fish and wildlife populations. It means operational changes that provide additional water during low and moderate flow years in the spring and summer to increase survival of juvenile salmon migrating downstream to the Pacific Ocean. It also includes fish passage and reintroduction of salmon above Grand Coulee Dam and into Canada, and to stop using the Upper Columbia River as a sacrifice zone.” -- Center for Environmental Law & Policy

The Columbia River Treaty is not the only regulatory regime that governs management of the Columbia River watershed, but it plays a major role. Other regimes include the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion requirements under the Endangered Species Act, the Nez Perce Water Rights Agreements of 2004, actions under the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, actions under the Clean Water Act to improve water quality, and implementation of the Columbia Basin Fish Accords. In addition, there are numerous habitat and conservation programs and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license requirements associated with non-federal dams on the Columbia River.

Bringing Indigenous ethics back to river care.Since 2014, a multi-year "ethics consultation" on the Columbia River Treaty has been facilitated by The Ethics & Treaty Project in the form of annual conferences. The Ethics & Treaty Project is hosted jointly by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Sierra Club with support from the Columbia Institute for Water Policy. The project works with the Columbia River Treaty Round Table and Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations with natural resource rights and management authorities and responsibilities affected by the Columbia River Treaty (the Ethics & Treaty Project neither represents nor speaks for Tribes and First Nations). The conference series is intended to increase public understanding of the Columbia River Treaty and provide an interdisciplinary forum to discuss shared stewardship of the river in the face of climate change.

An ethics consultation is a process for improving the quality of ethical decision-making. It is a model commonly used in hospitals where some of the most difficult ethical choices must be made on a regular basis. The organizers use their conference as an ethics consultation and apply the model for considering the Columbia River and the treaty. They use a framework that emphasizes social and environmental justice, collaboration towards the common good, and the need for truth as well as reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The 2021 conference occurred virtually on Nov. 17 and 18, courtesy of the Okanagan Nation Alliance and the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Recordings will be made available.

“These gatherings have been opportunities to feel the reality and impacts of colonization upon Indigenous Nations and the devastating impacts of the Columbia River Treaty. They also provide an opportunity to share stories that are familiar to all Tribes along the Columbia River. As the Indigenous people of the Columbia Basin, we are all salmon people, tied to the river for sustenance and to carry our responsibilities to care for all our lands, resources and peoples as we have since time immemorial.” --Pauline Terbasket, Executive Director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance

The U.S. negotiating position is that a new Treaty must take into account ecosystem 'flows' and include a federal fisheries representative on the negotiating team.

Ecosystem-based Management Approach

 

"While Tribal and environmental groups have generally agreed that provisions for ecosystem-based functions should be incorporated into the agreement, some also have argued that the proposed recommendations for Treaty modifications [the U.S. position] did not go far enough in providing for these purposes. They have called for the ecosystem function to be explicitly added as a third purpose of the Treaty, to be treated coequally with hydro-power production and flood risk management. ... They acknowledge that adding the ecosystem function as a coequal purpose would likely entail operational changes on the Columbia River in both countries beyond those currently provided for ... One of the primary goals of these changes would be augmented flows for fisheries in spring and summer months and during water shortages." --2020 Columbia River Treaty Review, Congressional Research Service

Map pf Columbia Basin TribesTribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada suffered profound damage and loss from the Columbia and Snake River dams and the Columbia River Treaty. For more than 80 years, salmon, which once comprised up to 85% of the diet of northwest Indigenous peoples, have been blocked from returning to vast areas of their former, pre-dam range. Now, an Indigenous-led collaboration of the Syilx Okanagan Nation, Ktunaxa Nation, and Secwépemc Nation, together with the governments of Canada and British Columbia, is working to return salmon stocks to the full length of the Columbia River. On the U.S. side of the border major efforts also led by Tribes are underway to restore salmon above Grand Coulee dam. The effort faces challenges that include habitat loss, overfishing, pollution, politics, racism, climate change, and of course the dams. It is often difficult and painful work, but Indigenous advocates view it as a sacred responsibility that they carry on from their ancestors.

In 2018, twenty conservation and faith-based organizations wrote an open letter to the U.S State Department Chief Negotiator in which they call for the health of the ecosystem to become a third pillar in treaty negotiations along side hydro-power generation and flood control:

“[The Columbia River Treaty (CRT)] is often heralded as one of the most successful trans-boundary river management agreements in existence. And while there is little doubt that the current treaty has produced benefits for both nations in the form of flood risk management and hydro-power capacity, it has done so at great cost to fish and wildlife populations and to many residents of the Columbia River Basin. Decisions made long ago need not, however, impede a robust effort today to restore environmental, economic and social equity through treaty renegotiation. Integrating new governance systems that address the river’s ecosystem and enhance public participation in treaty implementation are important goals for our coalition and the region. Achieving these outcomes would truly make the CRT the gold standard for trans-boundary river management agreements between nations.”

The twenty organizations listed seven recommendations that they urged be taken up in the treaty renegotiation process:

  • Protect and enhance the immense value of the Columbia Basin ecosystem by recognizing Ecosystem-based Function as a primary purpose of a modernized treaty, co-equal with flood risk management and hydro-power generation.

  • Establish a water bank-type leasing system to provide assured ecosystem flows in low and average water years.

  • Expand the U.S. Entity1 to include appropriate representation for ecosystem function.

  • Create advisory committees of affected stakeholders and sovereigns to support the U.S. Entity in treaty implementation.

  • Reform the U.S. negotiating team to ensure balanced representation of the issues involved.

  • Support a review of flood risk management in the U.S. portion of the basin, as called for in the 2013 Regional Recommendation.

  • Restore the bi-national Collaborative Modeling Workgroup

Photo of Native Americans fishing at Kettle Falls, WA before 1940.The Indigenous peoples of the Inland Northwest have long felt disenfranchised when it comes to decisions being made about the future of their ancestral homelands and watershed. Their ire in this regard is obviously not limited to how they feel they have been treated in by the U.S. and Canadian governments in the establishment of the Columbia River Treaty, but due to the treaty’s trans-national scope and its vast geographic footprint, the treaty stands as a symbol of historic as well as present-day wrongs that need correction. The interests of Tribes and First Nations were blatantly ignored by the rich white men who were in control of the treaty negotiations on both sides of the border spanning the 1930s, '40s, '50s '60s and onward. The governments' arrogance is illustrated well by the underlying racist logic of permanently flooding vast areas of Indigenous homelands and villages (and destroying their food supply) in order to "control" flooding in white settlements.

Despite the terrible difficulties facing Indigenous communities in the mid-20th century, Indigenous activism around issues of injustice is not a recent development. Indeed, it is what underlies all of the history of Indigenous-settler relations. The loss of the salmon along with many of the social traditions and manifestations of a salmon-based culture that these communities subsequently suffered was already keenly foreseen by them, however powerless they were to stop it.

“On June 14, 1940, Native Americans from throughout the Northwest gathered at Kettle Falls for a three-day “Ceremony of Tears” to mourn the loss of their ancestral fishing grounds, soon to be flooded by Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Central Washington. Kettle Falls was second only to Celilo Falls (which was inundated by The Dalles Dam in 1957) as a fishing and gathering place for Native Americans along the Columbia. Salish speakers called it Shonitkwu, meaning roaring or noisy waters. European settlers in the late nineteenth century named it Kettle Falls, after the great depressions -- or kettles -- carved by the pounding of water on the huge rocks on the edges of the river. For centuries, Indians had come together at the falls to fish, trade, and socialize. "This is where people met, got married, had babies, settled disputes," said Patti Stone, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.” --HistoryLink.org Essay 7276 by Cassandra Tate

A reporter for the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane who was present estimated the attendance at 1,000. Chiefs of the San Poil, Colville and other bands spoke. According to the newspaper, the chiefs “told of their sadness of the passing of the falls, and some thought the government should reimburse them for their loss.”

Every year since 1940 there has been a gathering at Kettle Falls to pray for the return of the salmon.

Indigenous participants in the first 'Ceremony of Tears,' Kettle Falls, WA, 1940
Source: Okanagan Nation Alliance (the 1940 ceremony pictured)

At the top of the list of demands without which no real healing or progress can be hoped for is the long-overdue inclusion of Tribal and First Nation governments along with the Canadian and U.S. governments, as equal participants in these government-to-government treaty negotiations. It's not enough that Indigenous representatives are sometimes asked to 'present' to the negotiators. And Indigenous stakeholders also perceive the requirement, when they are called as 'technical presenters,' to sign non-disclosure agreements, as a colonial construct of division only serving to alienate representatives at the negotiations from the communities they come from. Tribes and First Nations must be at the table as equals in a transparent and open process. It's a continuing affront to Indigenous sovereignty that they are not.

In Canada, a truth and reconciliation process is underway even as past and current events haunt the First Nations as they do in the U.S., missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the shallow graves of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indigenous youth who never returned home from residential schools.

Canada has invited Indigenous Sovereigns to be part of Canada’s treaty negotiating team as observers. That is a first step. It’s not enough.

For the United States, no national truth and reconciliation process with Indigenous people has yet begun. The U.S. Department of State has yet to invite Tribes to be part of the U.S. treaty negotiating team. The U.S. only invites Indigenous stakeholders as 'technical presenters.'

What you can do:

Write a letter to or call your U.S. Representatives and Senators:
https://democracy.io/

Send a comment to the U.S. State Department Negotiating Team:
ColumbiaRiverTreaty@state.gov

Send a comment to the Columbia River Treaty Team (British Columbia)
columbiarivertreaty@gov.bc.ca

Compose your own message, here are some talking points:

The United States and Canada are currently negotiating the Columbia River Treaty. Many in the region believe modernizing the Columbia River Treaty is a critical opportunity for Canada and the United States to join together to acknowledge damage done, right historic wrongs, and commit to stewardship of this great river in the face of climate change. For the proceedings to be fair, just and comprehensive, I urge the negotiating teams from both governments to incorporate the following recommendations into the process:

  • Include Sovereign Tribal and First Nation governments along with the Canadian and U.S. governments, as equal participants in these government-to-government treaty negotiations, not as ‘observers’ or ‘technical presenters’.

  • Emphasize social and environmental justice, collaboration towards the common good, and the need for truth as well as reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in all treaty negotiations.

  • Recognize Ecosystem-based Function as a primary purpose of a modernized treaty, co-equal with flood risk management and hydro-power generation, not simply ecosystem ‘flow’.

  • Establish a water bank-type leasing system to provide assured ecosystem flows in low and average water years.

  • Expand the U.S. Entity to include appropriate representation for ecosystem function.

  • Create advisory committees of affected stakeholders and sovereigns to support the U.S. Entity in treaty implementation.

  • Reform the U.S. negotiating team to ensure balanced representation of the issues involved.

  • Support a review of flood risk management in the U.S. portion of the basin, as called for in the 2013 Regional Recommendation.

  • Restore the bi-national Collaborative Modeling Workgroup

Resources:

Columbia River Treaty (Wikipedia)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_River_Treaty

Center for Environmental Law & Policy,Ethics & Treaty Project
2021 One River, Ethics Matter Conference

https://celp.org/ethics-treaty-project/
https://riverethics.org/
https://celp.org/ethics-okanagan/
https://celp.org/2021/11/11/8th-annual-one-river-ethics-matter-conference/
https://celp.org/category/columbia-river-treaty/

Conference Hosts
Okanagan Nation Alliance

https://www.syilx.org/8340-2/ and
University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus

https://ok.ubc.ca/

Earth Ministry / Washington Interfaith Power & Light
https://earthministry.org/event/one-river-ethics-matter-conference-2/

Columbia River Treaty Backgrounder on Restoring Fish Passage, Slide Presentation (The Council of State Governments)
https://www.csgwest.org/programs/documents/20131003ColRTreatyandFishPassage.pdf

Columbia River Treaty (Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Entity)
https://www.bpa.gov/Projects/Initiatives/Pages/Columbia-River-Treaty.aspx
https://www.bpa.gov/Projects/Initiatives/crt/CRT-Regional-Recommendation-eFINAL.pdf

Columbia River Treaty (US Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, U.S. Entity)
https://www.nwd.usace.army.mil/CRWM/Columbia-River-Treaty/

Columbia River Treaty (U.S. State Department)
https://www.state.gov/columbia-river-treaty/

Columbia River Treaty Negotiating Team (Canada)
https://engage.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty/columbia-river-treaty-negotiating-team/

2020 Columbia River Treaty Review (Congressional Research Service)
https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/R43287.pdf

The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good An International Pastoral Letter by the Catholic Bishops of the Region
http://www.inee.mu.edu/documents/30columbiariverwatershed_000.pdf

Crafting an Ethic of Place: The Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)
https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/814

Native Americans begin "Ceremony of Tears" for Kettle Falls on June 14, 1940
https://www.historylink.org/File/7276

Ceremony of Tears, Northwest Power and Conservation Council
https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/columbia-river-history/ceremonyoftears

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1 The Columbia River Treaty calls for two “entities” to be designated to implement arrangements under the Treaty — a U.S. Entity and a Canadian Entity. The U.S. Entity, designated by the President, consists of the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration (chair) and the Northwestern Division Engineer (member) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Canadian Entity, appointed by the Canadian Federal Cabinet, is the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (B.C. Hydro).

Edition: 
November, 2021