International Management in the Columbia River System


Various approaches to international water management have been practiced in the Columbia River system for almost eight decades. The hydrography of the upper part of the system results in both Canada and the US being upstream and downstream coriparians. The Kootenay River has been particularly significant in this respect. Negotiations have stressed equality rather than equity despite the asymmetry in the size of populations and economies. Equality stems from the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and has been fostered by the International Joint Commission (IJC). The coriparians have enjoyed a long history of relatively harmonious relations, but irritants over use of boundary waters occasionally develop, most of which have been successfully addressed through the IJC. This success was not the rule, however, through much of the 1950s. Disagreements over the proposed Libby Dam and the principle of sharing downstream benefits were exacerbated by a proposed hydropower project (the McNaughton Plan), which would have diverted part of the Columbia River in Canada into the Fraser System. During this period interests in both countries invoked water management principles in support of their positions, including: equitable utilization, historic use, riverine integrity, and absolute sovereignty. Disagreements were reduced near the end of the decade by US acceptance of sharing downstream benefits and completion of the IJC report affirming the feasibility of international development of the Columbia River.

By 1961 the federal governments had negotiated and signed the Columbia River Treaty (CRT), but the refusal of British Columbia to sign until concessions to its plans were made delayed ratification of the treaty until 1964. The CRT features equal sharing of downstream benefits for hydropower and flood control in the US that result from development and use of 19 km3 of usable storage in Canada. The United States prepaid Canada's share of the value of benefits from 60 years of flood control and 30 years of hydropower, a sum sufficient to pay for the construction of the CRT dams. The CRT also allowed the US to build Libby Dam and disallowed the McNaughton Plan by limiting diversions out of the Columbia to consumptive uses.

The CRT's hydropower and flood control objectives have been met, but the coriparians are challenged to successfully deal with the increased value society places on endangered biota, environmental quality, and sustainability. The report concludes, among other things, that successful international water management is more likely when coriparian states have a history of harmonious relations and have created a permanent legal/administrative framework designed to address problems from use of boundary waters.

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