By Korie Marshal, Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee member

Do you want to head down to Golden or Revelstoke for the weekend, maybe check out their ski hills, craft breweries, go sightseeing? Sure, just head southeast of Valemount and follow the road along Canoe River, until it meets up with the Columbia River. Cross the Columbia and join up with the Big Bend Highway – turn east to get to Golden, or west to Revelstoke. It’s only about 250 KM, you’ll be in either town in about 3 hours. Beautiful drive. On the way home, stop in at the Canoe River Hot Springs for an afternoon soak.

Kinbasket Lake as seen from the McKirdy Meadows trail /RMG FILE PHOTO

“What?” you ask. “There is no road along the Canoe River is there? Never heard of the Big Bend Highway. And those hot springs are under the Kinbasket Reservoir most of the time, aren’t they?”

Yes, they are all under the Kinbasket Reservoir, because of the Columbia River Treaty – an agreement with the United States for flood control and power generation along the Columbia River. Communities, homes, resources, ecosystems throughout the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin were lost under reservoirs created because of the Treaty. Many of those impacts are still being felt today, and yes, Valemount, at the very northern tip of the largest reservoir in the system, is also impacted in many ways.

But what is done is done, right? The treaty was signed, the valleys are flooded, nothing is going to change, is it? Well, that may not be so. Either Canada or the US can pull out of the Treaty, with 10 years notice. So far, neither country has shown any inclination to pull out, but both are looking at the value and the costs of the treaty. And certain parts of the Treaty change in 2024, and will continue, regardless.

The flood control portion of the Treaty is currently called “Assured” – meaning Canada uses its reservoirs to store water so that resources and cities in the US portion of the Columbia River don’t get flooded out and washed away. In 2024, that changes to “Called Upon”, which generally means that the US will have to use its own storage before asking us – and then they will need to pay us for the service. There is a lot that has changed along this river in the 57 years since this Treaty was ratified – there are more reservoirs, more power plants, more irrigation, commercial and recreational use, more concern about fish and ecosystems. Both parties have ideas about what this change will look like, but there is no agreement yet.

British Columbia, Canada and at least three Indigenous Communities have been seriously looking at the impacts (which are mostly on the northern side of the US-Canada border) and the benefits (which are mostly on the southern side) of the Treaty. We are imagining some different possibilities with a “modernized” treaty. The federal government did not ask residents of the basin what they wanted before the Treaty was signed, but things are changing. Local governments in the basin have been talking to the provincial and federal government about the impacts on our communities, and the provincial and federal governments are listening. They’ve created the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee (CBRAC) to discuss and share stories, impacts, and ideas about how to make the treaty better.

I am a representative for Valemount on the CBRAC committee, and we were planning to bring the committee to Valemount last spring, so we could show Kinbasket at its lower levels to committee members. Because of COVID-19, we had to suspend our in-person meetings, but we continue to meet regularly via conference calls and now Zoom. I’m still hoping we can get folks here when we can meet in person again.

Oh, and the other big thing – discussions between the US and Canada have begun on modernizing the Treaty. In fact, they began in April 2018 – almost three years ago. The negotiators have been meeting regularly, and one of the coolest things is that since June 2019, three First Nations – Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx/Okanagan Nations – are sitting on our side of the table with BC and Canada. Canada and BC recognize that this treaty needs to be about more than just power and flood control, and these three Nations have been doing a lot of work identifying other values and studying what may be possible. Both CBRAC and the Local Governments’ Committee fully support the equal inclusion of the Syilx/Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations in these negotiations.

It is also really cool that we are amending the terms of reference for CBRAC – to say that we will continue to meet, discuss, learn, and advise the treaty negotiators, and discuss local treaty-related impacts, for as long as we all see benefit in doing so.

You can hear from the negotiators, First Nations, and local government representatives at a virtual Town Hall on the Columbia River Treaty, coming up on February 24th at 6:00pm. You can submit questions beforehand and learn more about the treaty and this work to modernize it.