Skip to content

Biden, Trudeau pledge action on Columbia River Treaty, water quality concerns

Indigenous leaders continue to advocate for an investigation into Kootenay watereshed pollution
View of the Columbia River shoreline in Trail. Photo: Jesse Regnier

Another round of negotiations over the Columbia River Treaty have wrapped up in Washington, D.C., as delegations with Canada and the U.S. met for the 16th time to discuss modernizing the water sharing agreement.

The latest talks focused on strengthening co-operation to support aquatic life and biodiversity in the Columbia River Basin, ongoing studies regarding salmon reintroduction, flood-risk management and greater flexibility for how treaty dams are operated, according to an update from the province.

The Canadian delegation include representation from Government of Canada, the Province of B.C. and the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations, while the American side includes federal agencies and expert advisors from Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.

The Columbia River Treaty was ratified decades ago as an agreement centred on flood control management and power generation on Columbia Basin river systems. The treaty facilitated the construction of three dams in British Columbia and one in Montana.

The treaty was one item noted in a joint statement issued by U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following a bilateral meeting between the two leaders last week.

“The United States and Canada will intensify their work over the coming months toward agreement on a modernized treaty regime that will support a healthy and prosperous Columbia River Basin,” reads the statement. “We will focus on flood risk management, power generation, and environmental benefits that are shared equitably by both countries and the Indigenous peoples and Tribal nations, communities, and stakeholders in this watershed.

“The Columbia River is a vital shared resource that underpins many lives and industries on both sides of the border and the watershed requires our attention and prompt coordination.”

The same joint statement also noted an agreement in principle by the summer to address water pollution concerns in the Elk-Kootenai watersheds, which straddles the Canada and United States international border.

Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison has been tracking the negotiations, noting constituents have raised concerns about Lake Koocanusa water levels, reintroducing salmon into the Columbia River, historical displacement and agricultural impacts from the reservoir flooding.

While he isn’t directly involved with the talks, Morrison said those issues, among others, are being raised in the discussions.

“It sounds promising so let’s be positive and hopefully things will turn out well for us,” said Morrison, during a media availability at his constituency office on Tuesday (March 28).

The resolution on the water-quality issues in the Elk-Kootenai watershed are long overdue, according to the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

“The joint statement indicates that the highest levels of both the Canadian and U.S. governments are committed to resolution – this is the first time we’re publicly hearing these federal governments collectively acknowledge this,” said Kathryn Teneese, chair of Ktunaxa Nation Council.

While the treaty talks are ongoing, the Ktunaxa have also been advocating for reference to the International Joint Commission (IJC) — an entity that investigates transboundary water issues and provides recommendations for resolutions.

However, internal correspondence between the B.C. and federal officials indicate that provincial officials were opposed to the IJC reference and may have influenced the Canadian government’s potential involvement in the process. The correspondence was part of a Freedom of Information document disclosure pursued by the Ktunaxa Nation Council and released by the province last fall.

READ: B.C., Teck opposed to international study of Kootenay watershed pollution

“Negotiations have been slow and have to generate real, meaningful change,” said Teneese. “The transboundary Ktunaxa Nation has been formally asking for an IJC reference since 2012, and we continue to ask that of the federal governments. We would like to see an IJC reference be part of a multi-prong approach to address this challenging issue.

“Canada has been largely dismissive of IJC involvement and, as we saw in the Freedom of Information packages, there may have been some political interference on this issue.”

The Ktunaxa Nation Council continues to advocate for a “One Nation and One River” approach, as the Kootenay River — which is located in traditional Ktunaxa territory on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border — is central to the Ktunaxa Nation’s Creation Story.

While the United States has been receptive to an IJC reference, the Canadian federal government has been lukewarm, noting work to address water quality concerns collaboratively with the Ktunaxa and B.C. remain ongoing, according to a statement from a federal spokesperson last fall.

The federal government has not rejected the possibility of a reference to the IJC at that time, the spokesperson added.

Leadership from Ktunaxa governments in the United States have criticized the Canadian government for backing down from an initial commitment to joint action.

“Promises have been made by the Canadian government and then broken before,” said Chairman Tom McDonald of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “It is encouraging that this joint statement acknowledges that action needs to be taken, but clear pressure needs to be focused on ensuring Canada lives up to its commitment.

“This cannot just be more empty words. This is the perfect time for Prime Minister Trudeau to take a strong stand for the environment and for the people.”

Much of the water quality concerns centre on elevated levels of selenium in the Kootenay watershed allegedly caused by open-pit coal mining activity at four sites in the Elk Valley.

Teck Coal Ltd., which developed a water quality plan 10 years ago in collaboration with transboundary government and Indigenous stakeholders, has three treatment facilities and maintains they can effectively remove 95 per cent of selenium from water.

The company has said the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan is “among the largest and most collaborative water quality management and monitoring program in the world,” according to a statement from a company spokesperson last fall.

However, that hasn’t alleviated water quality concerns on both sides of the border.

“The United States must throw its full weight behind getting Canada to honour its commitments to Indigenous governments and support a joint reference” says Tribal Council member Mike Dolson of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

“Selenium contamination should be a top priority for the United States, not only because the U.S. government has an obligation to honour our tribal sovereignty, but because these toxic pollutants threaten the health and safety of all communities across Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia.”

The province recently fined Teck Coal Ltd. over $16 million for violating water quality environmental regulations, particularly by failing to have a water treatment facility online by Dec. 2018. That facility was completed last summer and is currently operational.

The fines also penalized exceeded selenium limits and averages that were recorded at various times between 2018-2021.

However, the company is appealing those provincial fines, having noting concerns about the process.

Teck Coal Ltd. was previously fined $60 million two years ago — the largest environmental fine ever levied under the federal Fisheries Act — for depositing coal mine waste rock into the Upper Fording River. Samples from captured Westslope Cutthroat Trout indicated some fish contained adverse levels of selenium.

The Columbia River Treaty, ratified in 1964, has been historically criticized for a lack of consultation with Indigenous communities, as the construction of the dams and reservoirs displaced Basin residents and affected cultural, heritage, forestry, agricultural and tourism values in the region.

As part of efforts to modernize the agreement, specific issues up for renegotiation include the “Canadian Entitlement” — half of the incremental downstream power potential that could be produced due to flow regimes made possible by the treaty, along with flood control management.

A focus on ecosystem function — the environmental impacts of the treaty on the Columbia Basin river ecosystems — has emerged as a priority identified and led by Indigenous nations.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
Read more