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The Columbia River Treaty Essay Research Paper

The Columbia River Treaty Essay, Research Paper

The Columbia River Treaty

The Columbia River Treaty: was it a benefit or a rip off to the Canadian people? Although it has been argued both ways, my position is that the deal struck benefited the US and adversely affected British Columbia. While we did receive money from the US for the sale of electricity, this money does not adequately compensate for the loss of the benefits derived from actual water usage. I hope to inform the readers of the importance of this treaty, why it was controversial, as well as look at the political, environmental and economical factors that affected and influenced people’s opinions of the value of this treaty.

The Columbia River has been harnessed for power, irrigation, flood control, and navigation. It started in 1942 with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, the largest on the Columbia River, now called the eighth wonder of the world. The dam has 11 gates to allow the water to fall from twice the height of Niagara Falls, at a rate of a hundred million gallons a minute. This dam is located in Washington State in the U.S.A.

“The river drains an area larger than France, and drops over 2,650 feet in elevation as it travels 1,214 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia River and its tributaries make up what people refer to as the Columbia River. The total hydro electricity generated by this system is a third of all the hydroelectricity power generated in the United States. ” (Boyer, pg. 821-826). This is still not enough; they are still adding dams on this river system.

The river is very significant because it travels through both Canada and the United States. The river starts from Columbia Lake, located in southeast British Columbia and ends up as part of the Washington and Oregon State border, before draining into the Pacific Ocean through a wide estuary west of Portland Oregon.

The United States of America could not effectively generate enough electricity, and thus the Columbia River Treaty was born. The treaty was a cooperative effort of both the Canadian and the American governments to effectively harness, and share the power generated by the Columbia River system. The Columbia River Treaty was a cause of great concern for the federal government and the people of British Columbia. The treaty, for which negotiations were started in 1932, was finally signed in Washington D.C. in 1961. The Premier of British Columbia, Premier Bennett, believed Canada had negotiated an exceptionally lucrative deal with the United States in regards to the sale of hydroelectric power. He believed the other benefits, such as flood control, and economic development that would result from the availability of this new power, would be of even greater worth for Canada. This view point is shared by, John Krutilla, who was well respected in the hydroelectric field, and who was retained by the United States Resources’ for the Future Corporation. He wrote a book called The Columbia River Treaty wherein, he analyzed the treaty in terms of dollars and cents. He concluded that this treaty was huge gain for Canada and that there were substantial losses to the United States, which he estimated to be between $250,000,000.00 and $375,000,000.00. However, he neglected to account for the social and economic loss Canada suffered by the flooding of Arrow Lake Valley. He also did not consider the benefit gained by the United States that resulted in flood control and ability of the United States to divert 5 MAF (One Million Acre Feet) of water annually, from Libby’s pool alone, to American gardens where it may have been worth as much as $100.00 foot/acre.

But the farmers and business people who lived in the Arrow Lakes Valley became acutely aware that their communities were to be flooded. Many people realized this would be detrimental to the fishing industry, as well as the logging industry. Two huge industries, that would be deeply affected. The concern for the fishing industry probably outweighed the logging industry with concerns, from environmentalists and fishermen, alike. The fish would be unable to go to their spawning grounds, upsetting the environmentalists and fishermen feared that they would be unemployed. The Columbia River was essential to the logging industry; they used the river to transport their logs to mills. To many people it seemed they would be drowned out-largely, it appeared to them, for the benefit of the United States. They mobilized for action to stop this, but all to no avail. The government upheld the treaty and built the dam that created a lake, that flooded their valleys. This tenacious but unsuccessful battle with the Provincial and Federal Government exposed the short-term, shortsighted planning that the Canadian people ended up with. Francis Bartholomew, a professional consultant who had been hired by the people opposing the building of the dam(s), supported the farmers’ viewpoint.

Those opposing the building of the dam believed that the government (federal and provincial) did not appreciate the value of this most precious resource: fresh, flowing water. They did not consider the value of giving away control of the water and the value of the actual water usage. How much is this worth? Since this treaty, for over thirty years now, a large Canadian corporation has been regulating much of the flow of the Kootenay River to American advantage, without any reward. Therefore, the monies given to the Canadian government is returned indirectly to the Americans through flood control. More recently, we have given away half of the flow of that river, and have sold for a lot of money, the Arrow Lakes valley to the United States. There is an even greater danger that we will continue to make the same mistakes with our other waters, including the Great Lakes River systems.

Why is all this water so important to the United States? The Committee on Western Water Development presented this report to the United States Senate, during the years of the treaty feasibility studies:

“Man’s dependency on an adequate supply of fresh water is an indisputable fact. It is equally a fact that there is an insufficiency of such water and that is insufficiency has been particularly felt in the western United States. Many efforts have been and are continuing to be made to solve the problem of limited water supply, and although great strides have been achieved, so great is the problem and so important its solution that it now has become imperative that consideration be given to what at one time seemed unachievable proposals. The time has passed during which this problem can be solved through traditionally local or piecemeal approaches. The solution must equal in magnitude the problem. It is for this reason that a concept advanced by the Ralph M. Parsons Co., engineers-constructors to Los Angeles, to divert runoff waters of Alaskan and Canadian rivers through tunnels, reservoirs, and lifts to water-parched areas of North America demanded attention….” (Waterfield, pg. 206).

The water was engineered to run in man-made channels, re-routed into arid regions in the U.S., turning desert areas into green gardens of fruit and vegetables. New population settled and prospered in the regions where none could live before. Without this valuable water all these regions would not be in existence. That is why, even a small payment of $5.00 to $10.00 foot/acre would have been a fair payment for the Canadian water that gave the U.S. an estimated gain of $100.00 foot/acre. That is why Donald Waterfield wrote in his book Continental Waterboy, to illustrate the extreme value of our water and how we were being exploited because we can see no need for all the water we currently have:

” The lesson to be learned from Columbia is obvious and simple-beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Those seven billion kWh were too glittering to be resisted, and NAWAPA’s (North American Water and Power Alliance) billions of dollars will sparkle even more brilliantly and hypnotically…There were already plans on American drawing boards for watering the United States with northern streams before acceptance by Canada of Libby’s pool…

It was entirely logical to assume that, if Canadians were willing to give the

Americans Kootney’s water, they would surely be even keener to sell flows from other rivers. It is suggested, therefore, and it is urged that Canada formulate and publish a clear policy with respect to water and its export.” (Waterfield, Pg. 214)

In conclusion, I believe, our government handled this event very badly. Would we react the same way today, knowing what we know now? Well, we may have the answer soon. Currently the United States is negotiating with Canada to divert water from the St. John River. Are we going to give them “free” water so that their arid regions can become fertile lands and comparatively, we get nothing in return? Or are we going to say no, our water is going to be valued as one of our most precious natural resource, like the oil is to the Arab nations. My answer would be – I hope so.



Canadian Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. 4 vols. Edmonton, Alberta: Hurtig Publishers, 1988.

“Columbia River”, Microsoft (R) Encarta Encyclopedia. (c) 1997 Microsoft Corp.

Copyright (c) 1997.


Boyer, David S. “Powerhouse of the Northwest.” National Geographic May 1976: 821-826


Waterfield, Donald. Continental Waterboy: the Columbia River controversy. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1970.