The Province’s Columbia River Treaty Review is underway and this time around, the government has decided to consult with the regions affected by the treaty.

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By: Laura Keil

Since 1974, the Columbia River Treaty with the US was put in place to coordinate flood control and create power. The federal US government pays the Province of BC a handsome sum of between $100M and $300M per year as an “entitlement.” Boiled down, we sell them power and we both control water levels. Ironically, in the 70s, the new dams flooded a number of areas along the Columbia Basin.

Kinbasket Lake south of Valemount was formerly a huge stretch of forest.

In the 1970s, the residents affected by the treaty were not adequately consulted – those are the words of the Province. Not only were they not consulted, but it was not until 20 years later, when the Columbia Basin Trust was created, that impacted regions saw any direct monetary benefit from their losses. In Valemount, we never even had the benefit of local employment on the dams.

Now the renewal date is coming up for the treaty in 2014, and the government wants to know what we think of these circumstances.

The billions of dollars recouped from power generation along the Columbia Basin has gone into the Province’s general revenue coffers. In other words, as one Ministry representative put it, every resident of BC receives approximately $110/year from the power generation through local services. Since the mid-90s, Valemount also receives about half a million each year in benefits from the Columbia Basin Trust.

Since Kinbasket is hardly a lake, and East Canoe hardly a road, the main benefits to Valemount comes out to less than $1 million per year since the 90s.

But being on the far end of the flood control reservoir, we are one of the most crucial areas for keeping water at the right level, according to the Ministry representatives at a consultation meeting in Valemount last week.

In my view, we have a lot of political capital to spend. The problem is we don’t have current estimates of our economic losses due to the treaty. How much would that be? I would wager to say, it’s more than $1M a year.

I really don’t see how it makes sense that the money taken from power generation in this region should be invested elsewhere in the province, when we were never compensated for our losses.

Distributing the profits evenly isn’t being fair. We gave up a lot – and now social services in Surrey are being funded with the payouts while we struggle to get back on our feet. It’s time rural people made their voice heard.

There is little hope that BC Hydro or the Province will magically grant us benefits simply because they know they did us wrong. That’s never how it works. But I’ll argue it’s not about compensation – it’s about investing in areas you harvested from. Adding fertilizer back into the soil. It’s not about trying to “fix” the fact we lost a lot of trees. It’s not trying to make a lake out of a reservoir. Instead it’s investing in the most promising areas of our economy – it’s ensuring the Valemount Glacier Destinations happens or doing everything the province can to support our local IPPs, for instance.

BC Hydro has released a report saying the Kinbasket weir to create a longer boating/swimming season is not feasible. Their “very preliminary concept sketches” which included no site visit, concluded that the weir would actually be a dam, and would cost anywhere between $250 M to $1 billion.

I’m not sure how much this study cost, but it’s clear BC Hydro/the Ministry didn’t want to spend too much time on it. No site visit? I suppose they had maps. I hope they weren’t the same maps that gave the province the impression we have five months of boating access. That was part of the power-point slide at the meeting.

Now it would be easy to blame out-of-touch bureaucrats, or we could see their presentation for what it is: a call to arms. I was impressed by the sincerity of the government representatives. They appeared to want to know what we thought and said they are planning to present the information unbiasedly to our elected officials. But saying we’re mad won’t cut it. Valemount has never quantified to 2012 the losses we sustained from the flooding of Kinbasket Lake. We lost a huge timber harvesting area and gained a lake we can use with trepidation for at most two months of the year. As one person put it, boating on Kinbasket Lake is an adrenaline-filled experience with all the floating logs, despite years of “steady clean-up” on behalf of BC Hydro.

Other areas of the Basin have done more studies on what was lost and how the province could make it up to them. Valemount needs to do the same. We need to get off one knee and realize we can stand up.