Back in a new edition (Fall, 2022 release) with updates on the treaty negotiation process over the past decade, A River Captured is a compelling narrative that outlines a central ethical challenge: how to repair and restore some of what has been lost. While the 1964 Columbia River Treaty is often praised as a model water management agreement between the US and Canada, the story under the surface reveals greed, betrayal and heavy-handed tactics employed by the government in Canada, as the lauded treaty upended a healthy ecosystem with several dams and large storage reservoirs.
This lyrical and moving portrait of a lost landscape begins with a review of key historical events that preceded the treaty, including the Depression-era construction of Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, a mega-project that resulted in the extirpation in British Columbia’s southeast of prolific runs of chinook, coho and sockeye. Prompted by concerns over the 1948 Flood, American and Canadian political leaders next turned their policy energy on governing the flow of the snow-charged Columbia – exclusively to suit urban and industrial interests. The resulting treaty flooded three major river valleys in BC with four large dams, all constructed in a single decade.
Referring to national and provincial politics, First Nations history, and ecology, the narrative weaves from the present to the past and back again in an engaging and unflinching examination of how and why Canada decided to sell its water rights to American interests.
At the heart of the story is the lack of consultation with local people. Those in urban areas outside the region benefited most, while those living in the region, close to the land, suffered the most. This history is a reminder of the significant impact that public policy, international agreements and corporate resource extraction can have on one individual’s ability to live a grounded life, in a particular place.
A little-known aspect of the treaty’s history is its connection to the 1956 “extinction” of the Arrow Lakes Indians, or Sinixt, whose transboundary traditional territory once stretched from Washington State to the mountains above Revelstoke, B.C. Recently, a 2021 Supreme Court of Canada landmark decision restored their Aboriginal rights. This development, along with the expiration of the treaty’s flood control provisions in 2024, are key to the renegotiation of the water agreement, positioning A River Captured as important reading for the 21st century.
Readers are encouraged to use the “buy local” in Canada and US links to support neighbourhood bookstores, the lifeblood of literature. The book is also available through the big guys: Amazon.ca and Indigo in Canada or Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble in the US.