Implementation of Columbia River Treaty between United States and Canada is celebrated at International Peace Arch in Blaine on September 16, 1964.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 8/23/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9122

On September 16, 1964, implementation of the Columbia River Treaty is celebrated by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson in a soggy ceremony at the Peace Arch in Blaine. The treaty, signed by the two leaders' predecessors three years earlier but only recently ratified by the Canadian Parliament, calls for the construction of three dams in eastern British Columbia (Duncan, Keenleyside, and Mica) and authorizes the construction of a fourth dam in northwestern Montana (Libby Dam), for the purposes of flood control and developing hydropower in the Northwest.  In 2009, both the United States and Canada will begin studies to determine if any of the treaty's provisions should be modified beginning in 2024 when, by the treaty's terms, its provisions can be modified or terminated.

The Columbia River Treaty   

The Columbia River Treaty’s beginnings date back to 1944, when both the United States and Canada asked the International Joint Commission (an organization formed by both countries under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty) to investigate the potential for development of the water resources in the Columbia River system. The objective was to seek solutions to curb the flooding problem that then existed along the Columbia River, and to explore opportunities to develop cheap and plentiful hydropower for the Northwest. The study was not completed until 1959. Its report investigated a number of choices, and recommended the development of dam sites in the upper Columbia River basin to provide flood control and hydropower to both countries.   

Direct negotiations between United States and Canadian representatives began in February 1960 to determine where the dams would be built and how to allocate the flood control and hydropower benefits that they would generate. Talks were completed in less than a year, and on January 17, 1961, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1895-1979) signed the treaty. The treaty called for Canada to build three dams in British Columbia which would provide 15 million acre-feet of water storage.  The treaty also gave the United States an option to build Libby Dam on the Kootenai River (a tributary of the Columbia River) in Montana, with its storage reservoir (Lake Koocanusa) backing up into southeastern British Columbia.   

The U.S. Senate approved the treaty in March 1961. However, it ran into political winds north of the border, because negotiating the sale to the United States of the downstream benefits of hydropower and flood control that the U.S. would receive as a result of the Canadian dams required an agreement between the Canadian federal government and the British Columbia provincial government. The treaty called for both countries to share equally in the benefits generated by greater flood control as well as the benefits from the additional power. This included Canada receiving an entitlement to 50 percent of the estimated downstream power benefits generated in the United States.

But British Columbia had no immediate need for this power and no market for it. This issue as well as questions over who would pay to build the three dams in British Columbia caused negotiations between the provincial and federal government to drag on for three years. Finally an agreement was reached in which Canada agreed to sell its share of its entitlement to the power benefits to the United States for 30 years in return for a lump sum payment of $254 million. The United States also agreed to pay Canada another $64 million, which represented 50 percent of the estimated value of the downstream flood control benefits that the U.S. would receive over the next 60 years as a result of the dams. These payments paid for the construction of the dams. With the impasse broken, Canada ratified the treaty in September 1964.

A Soggy Ceremony  

A ceremony celebrating the ratification and implementation of the treaty was scheduled to take place in Blaine at Peace Arch Park on Wednesday, September 16, 1964, between U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson (1897-1972).  The big day arrived with off-and-on drizzle.  An estimated 25,000 people poured into the park during the morning, standing in bushes, trees, on top of telephone booths -- even on top of a restroom roof (which collapsed from the weight) to get a view of the ceremonies.  As the dignitaries began to arrive early in the afternoon, a steadier rain began falling -- not a downpour, but more than what the Blaine Journal grudgingly described as a “heavy drizzle.”

Johnson and Pearson arrived at the Peace Arch via helicopter from Vancouver early in the afternoon and were joined by both Washington state and British Columbia political figures on the stand just in front of the American side of the Peace Arch for the 40-minute ceremony. There were the usual speeches; one reporter commented Johnson alternated between looking impatient and resigned. But he smiled when, between speeches, the crowds erupted into shouts of “We Want Johnson.”

Bellingham Herald reporter Ken Robertson penned this description of the other politicos sitting in the rain on the stand with Johnson:

“The other men on the platform Wednesday left some vivid impressions that may never be recorded in history. Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson -- they sat with the dignitaries until just before the ceremonies -- never looked more serious. Sitting to the President’s left, Magnuson held a carved thunderbird which the British Columbia premier had presented Johnson.  For moments, as he crouched against the rain with the carving in his lap, it looked as if the great black wooden bird with its outstretched wings would swoop off with him. Senator Jackson finally had to use his program to keep his head dry, but it was Governor Albert Rosellini who appeared to be the moist poised man on the platform. Sitting to the President’s right, the only man without a coat, his neatly pressed suit began to show the raindrops, then long streaks of water, and finally turned dark Washington wet. But the governor stared ahead unperturbed. President Johnson had his ten-gallon hat and he didn’t even seem to notice the rain. British Columbia Premier W. A. C. Bennett could have passed for LBJ’s personal cheerleader during parts of the program. He stood up and led the applause every time the crowd began chanting for Johnson” (“Shaking Hands ...”).

Then it was time to formally sign the paperwork to implement the treaty. As if on cue, the rain intensified. Johnson and Pearson dashed off a number of signatures with different pens, and the ceremonies ended.  Johnson came down from the stand, lingered briefly underneath the arch, then broke into a grin and headed full-tilt for the crowd for 10 minutes of hand shaking, using both hands, moving fast, and delighting the people (“LBJ has a presence in person -- one the photographs and newsreels never quite capture,” explained Robertson) but keeping his secret service agents on their toes. And rain or no rain, the town of Blaine basked happily in its hour in the spotlight.

Future Revisions? 

Construction of the dams began soon after. Canada built its three dams first:  Duncan was finished in 1967, Keenleyside in 1968, and Mica in 1973. The United States completed Libby Dam in 1975.  Together the four dams doubled the storage capacity of the Columbia River Basin. Although the treaty has no expiration date, either the United States or Canada can terminate most of its provisions at any time beginning on on September 16, 2024, with a minimum of 10 years written notice.

Since the treaty was ratified in 1964, issues not considered then are now coming to the forefront, such as the adverse impact the dams have caused to the region’s salmon population, and how global warming’s impact might affect the treaty’s implementation in the future. In 2009, both the United States and Canada are conducting studies to begin developing baseline information for further analysis in evaluating possible changes to the treaty. 


Sources: “LBJ Lauds Power Treaty,” The Bellingham Herald, September 16, 1964, p. 1; Ken Robertson, “Blaine Political Center Of North America For One Hour,” Ibid., September 16, 1964, p. 1;  Ken Robertson, “Shaking Hands With President Was Big Thrill For Many Folks,” Ibid., September 17, 1964, p. 1, 3;  “Truckloads Of Litter Hauled From Peace Arch,” Ibid., September 17, 1964, p. 6;  “Johnson And Pearson To Meet at Peace Arch,” Blaine Journal, September 10, 1964, p. 1;  “Historic Treaty Completed,” Ibid., September 17, 1964, p. 1;  Becky Kramer, “Revisions To River Treaty Floated,” The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, March 29, 2009, website accessed July 19, 2009 (http://www.spokeman.com/stories/2009/);  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration,  “Columbia River Treaty: History And 2014/2024 Review,” website accessed July 19, 2009 (http://www/bpa.gov/ Corporate/pubs/Columbia_River_Treaty_Review_-_Feb_2009.pdf); John Harrison, "Columbia River Treaty,"  Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed July 31, 2013 (http://www.nwcouncil.org/history/ColumbiaRiverTreaty).
Note: This essay was revised slightly on August 1, 2013. 

Related Topics:   Rivers

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