We must manage Columbia River dams for healthier river flows and water quality, help struggling fish and wildlife, restore passage for salmon, and reconnect rivers to floodplains.
On Dec. 7, the U.S. State Department announced that formal negotiations with Canada over the Columbia River Treaty will begin early this year. Modernizing the treaty is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore one of the world’s great rivers. As religious leaders, we call upon our elected leaders to protect and restore the Columbia River for the common good.
An area the size of France, the Columbia River watershed includes parts of seven states and British Columbia. In Washington, about two-thirds of the state lies within the basin. For Puget Sound, the Columbia supplies salmon for people and starving orcas, crop irrigation, and abundant hydropower for homes and businesses, including generators for “cloud” storage for Microsoft and other IT companies.
When explorers Lewis and Clark first drank from streams flowing into the Columbia, it was among the richest salmon rivers on earth: Tens of millions of wild salmon returned yearly to natal streams to spawn. Salmon have been the life source for the region’s indigenous people from time immemorial to the present. Though we’ve treated it like more like an “organic machine,” the Columbia River is sacred.
The mid-20th century dam-building era exchanged one of the earth’s richest salmon river for a system of hydropower dams and reservoirs. The Columbia provided electricity to a growing region — but at great cost to the health of the river and life that depends on it.
Throughout the dam-building era, First Nations in Canada and native tribes in the U.S. were forced from their homes, lost their livelihood and food source, and saw their sacred salmon destroyed and ancestral sites flooded. Wildlife and agriculturally rich valleys were lost and flows needed by fish, wildlife, and river people disrupted. All this for the benefit of hydropower and flood control downstream.
In 1964, the U.S. and Canada ratified the Columbia River Treaty with only two purposes: hydropower production and flood-risk management. Tribes and First Nations were not at the negotiating table. Under the existing treaty, a sacred river is managed as machine.
Faith, fishing and conservation organizations view upcoming Columbia River Treaty negotiations as an opportunity to include “ecosystem-based function” — or river health — as a third, equal purpose for the treaty. We must manage dams for healthier river flows and water quality, help struggling fish and wildlife, restore passage for salmon now blocked by dams, and reconnect rivers to floodplains. Such a change would advance river resiliency with benefits of a healthier river and honor our commitments to native peoples.
According to “The Value of Natural Capital in the Columbia River Basin” by Tacoma-based Earth Economics, the basin annually provides $198 billion of value in food, water, flood-risk reduction, recreation, habitat, aesthetic and other benefits. An updated treaty needs to enhance, not further degrade, the natural capital of the basin.
Looming over everything is climate change: melting glaciers, forest fires and massive salmon kills from rising river temperatures. Without transformation, there is no future for the salmon and steelhead who depend on the living waters of the Columbia. We need a modernized treaty that will restore the river’s biologic resilience and support adaptation to a changing climate.
The Peace Arch between Blaine and Surrey, B.C., reminds us of the enduring friendship between our two nations. Negotiating the Columbia River Treaty between friends should be based upon ethical principles: justice — righting historic wrongs for indigenous people and the river — and stewardship of this sacred river in the face of climate change.