Giving the environment a voice with modernized treaties



Canadian and U.S. negotiators recently met in Portland to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. Portlanders should care about the results.

The 60-year-old treaty shut out Indigenous Peoples, who since time immemorial have managed the richest Salmon River on Earth. More dams were built, regulating the release of water to protect against flooding and generate hydroelectric power. Treaty dams flooded upstream valleys, with devastating environmental and social impacts.

And the first treaties predate any knowledge of climate change or the immense value of healthy rivers. Currently, climate change is causing the water stored in dams to warm up, causing fish die-offs. Many salmon and steelhead are teetering on the brink of extinction. Fortunately, Canada and the United States are talking about environmental issues.

President Joe Biden recently announced two salmon recovery efforts. One is $208 million over 20 years to reintroduce salmon above Grand Coulee Dam, and the other is to comply with treaty obligations with tribes and keep salmon and other native fish “healthy.” This is a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to return to a state of “prosperity.” Columbia River Basin.

U.S. negotiators need to ensure that a modernized river treaty advances President Biden’s river policies and priorities. Meanwhile, the City of Portland must expand work at Johnson Creek and the Columbia River Estuary to move people and structures out of harm’s way and reconnect the river to the floodplain.

Mechanical rivers or living rivers? The United States and Canada now have an important opportunity to forge a new and better balance. This means, at a minimum, adding river health (ecosystem function) as his third objective of the Convention, as well as adding the voice of rivers to the governance and implementation of the Convention.

Dan Litzman and Robin Everett

Litzman is conservation director for the Sierra Club. Everett is the Sierra Club’s deputy regional field director for the Northwest.

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