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B.C. preparing for flood-control talks over Columbia River

The Columbia River, seen from Corbett, Ore., is the subject of a 50-year-old treaty which the B.C. government is seeking to renegotiate.


The B.C. government will seek this fall to renegotiate the 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty with the United States, hoping to extract improved benefits from the international water pact.

A report to be released on Thursday calls on Ottawa to serve notice to the U.S. that the treaty should be reopened. Although the U.S. is pursuing a similar track, there is pressure south of the border to reduce the benefits that B.C. currently receives.

Under the treaty signed in 1964, British Columbia controls floods and releases water to generate power in the U.S. in return for payments ranging from $150-million to $300-million annually. The pact has no expiration date, but either country may, with 10 years' notice, cancel it or suggest changes that would begin in 2024. This September is the first opportunity for either to engage in that process.

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In December, the U.S. bargaining team announced it intends to reopen the treaty. But it aims to keep more of the energy produced at dams, and to pay dramatically less for the benefits it gets through the treaty – some analysts see B.C.'s payments being cut in half.

The dams built in B.C. to control water flow south of the border were paid for by the United States. Those dams provide a significant share of the province's hydroelectric power, and the annual payments for the province from the U.S. have added up to billions of dollars in revenue.

Those entitlements under the treaty are well-known and, for U.S. interests, a source of friction. But B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett said in an interview that he'll be hiring experts to calculate the lesser-known benefits that are enjoyed by the U.S.

"We need a valuation of all the benefits on the U.S. side that they derive from the treaty," Mr. Bennett said.

"First and foremost it is flood control, and if you look at the potential for damage in dollar terms, it is far greater than the amount of money that we get paid for downstream benefits. It's multiples of that. And that's just flood control."

In addition, environmental protections imposed by U.S. courts in recent years call for water releases that were never calculated in the original treaty. "That's fine, but that wasn't negotiated in the original treaty," Mr. Bennett said. "They have been getting that benefit just because of what nice people we Canadians are."

Now, Mr. Bennett wants to put a price on those niceties.

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"We'll be doing more in depth work on that. I have a budget for this, we'll be hiring experts to help us identify those benefits and put a value on them, make sure that we are well-prepared for the discussions."

One of the strongest advantages that B.C. may hold, however, is what will happen if a new deal isn't negotiated.

He noted that in 2024, even if the treaty is unchanged, the flood-control agreements will be amended. Under the existing terms, it will mean difficulties for those downstream states. "For the past 50 years, they have had industry build up around those assured water flows, they have had tourism and recreation and residential real estate spring up based on those assured water flows," he said. "I doubt they underestimate the importance of nailing this type of flood control down. That's going to be an important focus for the two countries."

On both sides of the border, there are modern demands and historic grievances, but Mr. Bennett predicted both sides have an interest in a new treaty. He maintains that B.C. still has a key advantage in the coming talks: "Water flows downhill – that's our lever."

The international treaty is unusual because Ottawa devolved its authority to negotiate the treaty to the province. Mr. Bennett is not sure who will lead the negotiations for Canada this time around, but for now, B.C. is setting the agenda.

Follow me on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More


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