My wondering about the treaty starts on the land. It’s important, when writing “landscape history,” when discussing a word-filled legal document of technical complexity, that questions and thoughts begin in a simple way, on the ground. What does the treaty feel like? What does it look like? How does it sound? My notebooks take me back to how I learned to listen to water.
Come with me.
Here is a sketch from my notebooks (Sketch 1), done on my first trip to Grand Coulee two decades ago, in 2004. This demonstrates where my mind was going. I recorded in a few strokes of the pen, the tight rationalization of water. Concrete and rip rap tell the water where to go.
Early on in my research, I took a trip to Grand Coulee Dam. It’s not, technically, a “treaty” dam, because it was constructed more than two decades before the 1964 agreement. But, it takes great advantage of the treaty flows, because it is the closest hydro-generating facility to Canada. In fact, the upper end of its reservoir butts up against the international boundary. The water released from Columbia River storage reservoirs in Canada allows Grand Coulee Dam to keep its reservoir’s summer water levels high. It can either funnel water through generators or pass it to Banks Lake for irrigation, all the while answering U.S. residents’ needs, and meeting ecological concerns about water levels.
Grand Coulee is also important because it blocked the ocean salmon from making their way to Canada. And while the needs of salmon are not technically a treaty concern, they are very relevant to the renegotiation process. Salmon need water flows at certain times, to transport juveniles downstream in spring, and to cool the water in summer so that returning fish don’t overhead. Salmon need tributary access.
These fish need the treaty to operate differently, if they are to recover enough to thrive.
Later that same year, I drove north, up the Columbia River into the source mountains, to Revelstoke, BC. Revelstoke sits at the upper end of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir, the relatively shallow but expansive storage behind Keenleyside Dam. The reservoir’s unnatural flood destroyed over a dozen rural communities, two lakes, a river and riparian forest habitat for innumerable songbirds. I was trying to feel for what the destroyed farmland had to say.
Also on this trip, I met my first reservoir tree stumps. Most of the stumps that once littered the treaty reservoirs have been uprooted and removed, in response to complaints by fishermen, whose lines continually tangled in them.
The haunting beauty, the memories of a lost forest embodied in these stumps, held me in its grip.
The year after that, I drove even further upstream, to Mica Dam, the tallest on the system, and the farthest north. Mica’s reservoir is immense, and deep, which of course means that the dam is, too. What struck me most when I got there: 1. The amount of water. 2. The silence.
Reading later about the construction, I came across the term “borrow area.” I realized at another level the amount of loss embedded in this treaty story. Phosphate-rich glacial till and ideal fish spawning gravel, had been “borrowed” to create one of the highest earthfill dams in the world. Some people don’t believe me when I say that Mica Dam is earthfilled. See for yourself.
As I listened more and more to the land, I tumbled into the symbology behind the Columbia River Treaty’s mega-projects. Simply put, the treaty dams were an international answer to a specific engineering problem: to ‘even out’ the flow of snowmelt tumbling out of the high mountains. Literally and symbolically, the treaty was about control. For millennia, human beings have worked at managing river systems. Nothing new. But in the upper Columbia, control reached a scale that had not been seen before.
I sensed more and more that reservoir water was missing something. That something, I realized, was freedom.
That brings me to what-in-the-world could be done about all this. Is it realistic, in an era of increasing electrification, to take out all the dams? No. But the system we’ve lived with for 60 years – Canada storing massive amounts of water behind the treaty dams, and the U.S. using it however they wish – that system can change. It’s important to note that when I say “Canada” and “the U.S.” I am talking only about how human beings identify themselves. The fish are not members of modern nation states, nor are the riparian forests, the raptors, the grizzlies or the river otters. Their needs have been ignored or dismissed for far too long. Their needs nonetheless require international cooperation, and a stated shift in values by those of us who benefit from the dams. Are we willing to pay more for our electricity? Are we willing to conserve and innovate? Bending and reshaping the water storage system to allow it to embrace the needs of all of creation…..that won’t be easy.
Just remember that the Columbia River Treaty happens somewhere, and every decision that gets made impacts that somewhere: the mountain valleys of the upper Columbia and Kootenay Rivers. May our hearts expand to an expansive transboundary perception. It will help the river heal.