Columbia River Treaty -- Planning, Negotiation, and Implementation

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 8/28/2013
  • Essay 10461
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The Columbia River Basin encompasses nearly 700,000 square miles in the United States and Canada. The river's main stem and several of its tributaries have their headwaters in eastern British Columbia. Additional tributaries drain parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. As the U.S. government and private companies began to build dams to develop the river for navigation, power generation, and flood control in the 1930s, it became apparent that it would be difficult to fully capture and regulate the potential of the Columbia without making use of reservoir sites in the upper reaches of the basin, particularly those on the rivers to the north of the international border in British Columbia. Nearly two decades of study and negotiation over sharing the costs and benefits of upper-river storage began in 1944, culminating in the Columbia River Treaty, signed by Canada and the United States in 1961. When the treaty was ratified in 1964, it provided the framework for transforming the river basin into a manageable system that could be fully utilized for power generation, irrigation, and navigation, while eliminating most flooding. The treaty has been widely recognized as a model for cooperative management of trans-boundary water resources, but is has also been criticized for its lack of environmental protections and for the effects that dams and reservoirs have had on communities they displaced or disrupted.

The First Dams

Though there had been some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigation and flood control projects on the Columbia River in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dam building did not start until the 1930s. In 1927 Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to prepare reports on each of the country's river systems detailing what improvements could be made to facilitate economic development. In its report for the Columbia River published in 1932, the Corps recommended building 10 dams on the main stem of the river to generate hydropower and supply water for irrigation projects in the arid but fertile lands of Eastern Washington. It identified areas on the tidal zone of the river for flood control projects such as levees, and limited its recommendation for locks (which allow vessels to travel past dams) to the dams below the mouth of the Snake River, near Kennewick. The Corps did not recommend any dams for flood storage.  

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Depression-era work relief program, funded the construction of two dams on the Columbia -- Bonneville and Grand Coulee. Bonneville Dam, the first-completed and farthest downriver of the dams, located at the Cascades of the Columbia not far upriver from Portland, Oregon, began operations in 1938, helping maintain a navigation channel and generating power. The second dam, Grand Coulee, located on the upper river in North Central Washington, was only intended for irrigation and a small amount of power generation when it was funded in 1933, but the plans were enlarged from 290 to 550 feet high soon after construction began to allow for a larger reservoir and more power generation capacity.  

Even at the larger size, the dam was unable to hold back the amount of snowmelt coming down the river during the spring and summer. Clarence Dill (1884-1978), a U.S. former senator from Spokane, testifying in a 1961 Senate hearing on the Columbia River Treaty about the need for upstream storage, said "I think that we did not have any full realization of this until we got the Grand Coulee Dam and we saw the millions of acres of water flowing over the top of the dam during the flood period ... I felt that the dam would never be complete until some such arrangement as this [treaty] was made" (Committee on Foreign Relations, Senate, 59). 

The difficulty lay in the topography of the river basin. Grand Coulee Dam could have been built even taller to retain more water, but then the reservoir behind the dam would have extended into Canada, violating the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada. Also, even a taller dam would not have provided the estimated 50 million acre-feet needed to store annual floodwaters for later release. (An acre-foot is the equivalent of one foot of water spread over one acre, or 325,851 gallons.) 

The upper reaches of the basin, in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, consisted of just 13 percent of the basin, but contributed 30 percent of the runoff because of high snowfall rates. The upper basin also had the best reservoir locations, with less population that would need to be displaced to make way for reservoirs, steeper valleys, and no salmon runs to disrupt (since Grand Coulee Dam, built without fish ladders, had blocked upstream salmon migration). 

By the time Grand Coulee came online in 1941, attention had shifted from Depression-era unemployment to increasing the power supply to support the war effort and would soon turn to increasing power generation to support continued industrial development after World War II ended. In 1944 two prongs in the effort to develop dams on the Columbia moved forward. One was part of a nationwide effort to plan for the best way to catch up on infrastructure projects that had been delayed during the war. In June 1944 Harry W. Bashore of the Bureau of Reclamation submitted a list of 30 projects in the Columbia Basin to the Senate's Special Committee on Post-War Economic Policy and Planning. The projects were intended to "provide irrigation for 1,778,000 acres of new land and supplemental water for about 1,780,000 acres of presently irrigated land, together with about 800,000 additional kilowatts of firm power" (Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation, 2). They were also expected to support agricultural development and increase the accessibility of timber and mineral resources in the region by creating a more navigable river.

International Investigations

At about the same time, in March 1944, the Canadian and American governments submitted a "reference" to the International Joint Commission regarding development on the Columbia. The commission was a bilateral agency created out of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The commission was tasked with dealing with pollution that crossed the international border and with the uses of boundary waters. A reference could be made to the commission by the two countries for investigation and judgment of an existing or a proposed use. In March 1944, according to the reference, "In order to determine whether a greater use than is now being made of the waters of the Columbia River system would be feasible and advantageous, the Governments of the United States and Canada have agreed to refer the matter to the International Joint Commission for investigation and report" (Water Resources ..., 1). 

The International Joint Commission convened a meeting in July 1944 in Spokane and established the International Columbia River Engineering Board. Each country could appoint two members (later increased to three) to the board, which would carry out the studies needed to answer the question posed in the reference. The board conducted studies of the basin's waters, soils, population, economics, hydrology, and existing dams. In deciding how to study the basin, the Board members also began to work out how any sort of cooperative agreement might be structured.  

While most of the discussions focused on technical issues and the costs and benefits of upstream storage, one contentious issue underlay the negotiations. General Andrew G. L. McNaughton (1887-1966), chair of the Canadian Section of the International Joint Commission and a member of the engineering board, announced in 1955 that the Canadian government planned to make use of the Columbia River's waters in Canada, not just store them for American use downstream. The proposed plans included diverting part of the Kootenay (Kootenai in the United States) River above the border and, more significantly, diverting 15,000,000 acre-feet annually from the Columbia to the Fraser River Basin for power generation. Many doubted that the Canadians would do this, given that recent efforts to rehabilitate Fraser River salmon populations had been successful and any potential hydroelectric dams would, at the very least, damage those runs. Regardless, Canadian authorities maintained that it was their right to divert any water they wished out of the river before it crossed the border, something the Americans wanted to prevent. The issue was complicated by the Chicago Diversion, which removed water that had originally drained from Lake Michigan into Lake Huron, a lake shared with Canada, and shifted it to the Mississippi River basin.

Power of the River

In the midst of the studies by the International Joint Commission, which extended over a decade and a half, the Columbia River offered a vivid example of its power. In 1948, a winter of heavy snow was followed by a heat wave and heavy rain in late May. The resulting snowmelt and stormwater swelled the river to three times its average volume. Flooding occurred in a number of places in the basin, but at Portland on the lower river it was particularly destructive. Just north of the city, the town of Vanport, built as a temporary housing project for World War II shipyard workers, was leveled by floodwaters after a levee just upstream of town broke. At least 50 people lost their lives in the flooding and property damage was estimated at more than $100 million throughout the basin. 

There had been other, more catastrophic, floods in the previous century, but the floodplain was more developed after the war and so the loss of property was felt more strongly. The Vanport Flood, as it came to be known even though it affected the whole basin, did not precipitate thinking about storage dams and flood control, but it certainly spurred ongoing efforts to work out a treaty with Canada and gain control of the river. 

This attitude was in keeping with the times, when many Americans believed that technology could and should be used to harness natural forces. The river, as has been described by historian Richard White in Organic Machine: Remaking the Columbia River, was seen as something that could be tamed and reinvented as a "machine." This sentiment was expressed by Clarence Dill in his 1961 testimony before the Senate:

"I just want to call attention to the fact that what has been a mass of rushing, rolling destructive water rolling down the river is now to be made a set of quiet pools in the canyons of the Columbia and Canada, and then be released in an orderly way, and give us literally millions of dollars of low-cost electricity on both sides of the line" (Committee on Foreign Relations, 60). 

A reporter who would later be one of Oregon's U.S. senators, Richard L. Neuberger (1912-1960), was also important in shaping public opinion about development of the Columbia and the need for a treaty with Canada. Neuberger wrote articles for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Harper's, and The Oregonian, about the river and its potential for hydroelectric power. In the Times, just after the flood, he wrote:

"As the Columbia River slowly ebbs from the most damaging flood crest since this area was settled by white men, advocates of a regional authority have started pointing out that any plan to control the great waterway must be international to be at all effective ... Engineers contend the current flood might have been materially lessened had an agreement with Canada existed at the time construction of the Grand Coulee dam began in 1934. Grand Coulee is the sole dam on the Columbia which stores water. Yet its storage capacity is limited by the fact that the lake back of the 550-foot structure, which cost $185,000,000 to build, extends only as far as the international boundary" (Neuberger, "The Northwest").

Lengthy Study, Overlooked Issues

The International Columbia River Engineering Board finally finished its report in 1959. The multi-volume study described the basin generally and then included reports on each of the main tributary rivers. The Board emphasized that it had considered the basin as a whole, without regard for the international border. In conclusion, it offered for consideration three preliminary plans for storage reservoirs in Canada: Non-Diversion, Copper Creek Diversion, and Dorr Diversion. "Diversion" referred to the possibility that Canada could divert water from the Kootenay River as it headed south toward the border across a small divide to the headwaters of the Columbia River, thereby cutting off a section of the river feeding the Kootenai River (as it was spelled in the United States) and reducing flooding in the Kootenai/y Valley farther downstream. The diversion would reduce the flow to a planned dam at Libby that would not be part of the treaty operations, but that would benefit from the permission to be given in the treaty to flood a portion of the Kootenai/y Valley in Canada for its reservoir. The Libby Dam was intended for hydropower in addition to flood control, however, so the Corps of Engineers did not want to lose the riverflow.  

Though a tremendous amount of effort went into planning the treaty and the projects on the river, the human and environmental costs received scant attention. Salmon, their populations already suffering because Grand Coulee had blocked 1,000 miles of upstream habitat, were accommodated with fish ladders, but there was little help for smolt trying to navigate through the gauntlet of dams to the sea. Other fish and wildlife species were dismissed with a cursory paragraph:

"No specific fish and wildlife studies were made for this report. However, responsible agencies have the problems under study. Indications are that ways and means may be devised to satisfy the requirements of the water resource development programs, and those of the fish and wildlife resources as well. Research programs to be carried on by these agencies should lead the way toward solving conflicts of interest" (Water Resources ..., 60). 

Likewise, little study was made of how the dams and reservoirs would affect communities that lived near them. Ultimately, First Nations lost culturally significant places and resources under the stored water in addition to the salmon they had already lost with the construction of Grand Coulee. Farmers and other residents along the rivers also lost their communities and their land to reservoirs. Of the 3,283,000 who lived in the basin in 1955, only 170,000 lived in the Canadian portion, making it difficult to be heard, particularly over the voices of the larger metropolitan areas along the coast that would benefit from the inexpensive power generated by the dams.

The Terms of the Treaty

Treaty negotiation between the United States and Canada, based on the International Columbia River Engineering Board 1959 report and on the engineers' continued assistance and analysis, began in February 1960. Over the course of nine meetings, representatives the two countries worked out an agreement. The treaty was signed by Canadian Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker (1895-1979) and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) on January 17, 1961, just days before Eisenhower left office. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) affirmed his support of the treaty shortly after taking office. 

The treaty laid out how the two nations would share the costs and benefits of the upriver storage and coordinate the operation of the storage dams on the upper river. First, it outlined how much storage Canada would be expected to supply upriver from the border. At Mica Creek, what became the Mica Dam would hold back a reservoir with 7 million acre-feet of active storage (water that could be taken out of the reservoir for downstream use). At Duncan Lake, Duncan Dam would hold back 1.4 million acre-feet. And at the outlet to Arrow Lake, what became the Keenleyside Dam would hold back 7.1 million acre-feet. 

The United States agreed to operate hydropower dams on the lower Columbia that would utilize the continuous supply of water released from the storage dams evenly around the course of the year. The treaty guaranteed Canada rights to half of the power generated as a result of the release of stored water, usually during the fall and winter when the natural flow of the river was low.  

The treaty stipulated that the Canadians would be compensated for their half of the downstream flood control benefits through a cash payment of $64,400,000. The American government also agreed to pay $1,875,000 for each request for additional flood storage, up to four requests during the 60-year term of treaty operations. The United States would also compensate Canada for electric power generation lost due to increased storage during those flood events. 

Canada gave the United States permission to build and operate Libby Dam in Montana. Once constructed, the dam's reservoir would back up into Canada. The Canadians agreed to ready the Kootenay River Valley for the inundation and not divert the Kootenay River for 20 years. After that time, Canada would be allowed to divert up to 1.5 million acre-feet annually from the Kootenay River upstream of the Libby Dam. 

The treaty created two new types of organizations. The first, called the "entities," would collaborate with each other and companies and agencies in their own countries to implement the treaty. The Canadian government appointed the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (known as B.C. Hydro) as the Canadian Entity. The U.S. Entity is made up of the Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Second, to gather information, monitor treaty operations, and carry out investigations as requested by either country, the treaty also established the Permanent Engineering Board. Each country appoints two members to the board.  

The treaty did not contain an expiration date, but provided that it could be ended or renegotiated after 60 years if either country gave notice at least 10 years before that. The treaty went into effect in 1964, so it can be terminated or renegotiated in 2024 if either country informs the other of its intent to do so by 2014. Otherwise, the treaty will continue in effect indefinitely.

Long Road to Ratification

The United Stated Congress ratified the treaty in 1961. At the hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, a series of government officials involved in the negotiations praised its terms and the benefits it would bring. Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) from Washington noted the economic development benefits the treaty would bring and asserted, "The effect of the treaty will be much as if a new and powerful river, augmenting by nearly one-forth again the Columbia River itself, will be brought into being during the low water season, riding on the crest of the present Columbia" (Committee on Foreign Relations, 3). Senator Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) of Montana focused on the more efficient operation of the river made possible by the treaty:

"The Columbia River is a magnificent river and its many tributaries have a number of excellent multipurpose damsites. Some of the sites have been developed with benefits in power generation, flood control, irrigation, and recreation. The projects have been developed somewhat independently by both public and private power interests in both countries. The time has now come when, if we are to realize the full benefit of the Columbia River resources in both Canada and this country, it is going to require a cooperative effort, a mutual sharing of benefits and costs" (Committee on Foreign Relations, 2).

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ivan B. White (1907-1991) linked the treaty's benefits to then-constant concerns about communism, testifying that "we regard Canada as a partner in the free world, and its growth, its economic growth, as being important to the United States" (Committee on Foreign Relations, 32).  

Not one person testifying before the committee opposed any part of the treaty, which was quickly ratified by the full Senate on March 1, 1961. Of the 91 senators who voted, just one opposed the treaty: Wallace Bennett (1898-1993) of Utah. 

Canada did not ratify the treaty until 1964. A series of internal disagreements between the federal and provincial governments, disputes over the need for more power development on the Columbia in Canada, and concerns over the equity of costs and benefits between the two countries delayed acceptance. 

A series of diplomatic notes exchanged between Canada and the United States in 1964 slightly modified the treaty without triggering the need for a second ratification vote by the U.S. Congress. Most of the changes related to operational protocols, the Canadians also requested that the United States purchase the first 30 years of downstream power benefits for a lump sum of $254,400,000. A not-for-profit entity, the Columbia Power Storage Exchange, was formed by 37 public power utilities and four private power companies in the United States to pay for and coordinate use of the power.

Considering the Treaty's Impacts and Its Future

Work on the dams began immediately after the Canadian government ratified the agreement and the treaty was formally implemented in a September 16, 1964, signing ceremony at the Peace Arch on the Washington-British Columbia border. As the Canadian dams and Libby Dam came online over the next decade, the flow of the Columbia River was placed largely under human control. The cooperative relationship laid out in the treaty generally operated successfully. The entities and the Permanent Engineering Board worked together to make operating plans and to gather information. Power prices in the areas served by Columbia River hydropower came to be some of the lowest in either country. 

By the 2010, the treaty was the subject of intense study and discussion as the 2014 deadline for either entity to inform the other that it would like to renegotiate or terminate the agreement approached. Any change or termination will require 10 years notice to allow time for renegotiation or planning, and 2024 is the end of the treaty's required 60-year term. The treaty would continue in effect indefinitely if neither country moved to alter it. 

Over the past five decades, there have been major shifts in the economies and cultural values of the United States and Canada. Environmental and social concerns about the effects of the dams up and down the river have shifted public opinion away from the belief that the river can be operated like a machine. Native Americans and First Nations have established their legal rights to be part of the discussions about river operations. Accommodations have been made for fish and wildlife, but the costs have been high because the Canadian entitlement (as the half-share of downstream power benefits is known) does not decrease if the water released from Canadian storage dams is used for things like helping salmon smolt through downstream dams rather than for generating power. Economic development in the Pacific Northwest and in British Columbia has not occurred as envisioned by planners in the 1960s, with less high-demand industrial development than anticipated actually coming to the region.  

In 2013, both countries were considering the economic, environmental, and social effects of the current arrangement, the outlook for power supplies, and the possible effects of climate change on precipitation patterns in the Northwest. Members of the public were far more involved in this discussion than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, and the U.S. Entity agencies -- Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers -- held public meetings throughout the region to gather input on issues. 

The Columbia River Treaty is considered a model for international cooperation in the use of boundary waters. Throughout the world there are disputes about shared water resources and the Columbia River Treaty offers a framework for negotiations, distributing costs and benefits, and coordinating implementation of agreements.

Sources: John Harrison, "Columbia River Treaty," Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed August 17, 2013 (; John Harrison, "Floods and Flood Control," Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed August 17, 2013 (; Water Resources of the Columbia River Basin: Report to the International Joint Commission, Vol. 1 (Ottawa: International Columbia River Engineering Board, 1959); "International Joint Commission, Executive Session, Ottawa, Canada, Proceedings of October 4, 1956," and "Executive Session, New York, NY, January 16, 1958," in Miscellaneous Publications on the Columbia River (Ottawa: W. W. Buskard, 1956 [?]); Charles E. Martin, "The Diversion of Columbia River Waters," Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting (1921-1969), Vol. 51, April 25-27, 1957, pp. 3-4; Jeremy Mouat, "The Columbia Exchange: A Canadian Perspective on the Negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, 1944-1964," in The Columbia River Treaty Revisited ed. by Barbara Cosens (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2012), pp. 14-42; Richard L. Neuberger, "Canada Lightly Talks of Union With US," The New York Times, April 22, 1951, magazine section, p. 26; Richard L. Neuberger, "The Northwest: Canada's Support is Sought for Columbia River Plan," The New York Times, June 20, 1948, p. E-6; Richard L. Neuberger, "Power Struggle on the Columbia," The Harpers Monthly, December 1957, pp. 42-49; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Rivers and Harbors, Columbia River and Minor Tributaries, House Doc. 103, pt. 1, 73rd Cong., 1 sess., June 10, 1933; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Irrigation and Reclamation, Investigations of the Columbia River and Its Tributaries, House Report No. 2099, 78th Cong., 1 sess., January 2, 1945; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Public Works, Columbia River and Tributaries, Northwestern United States, House Doc. 531, Vol. 1, 81st Cong., 2 sess., March 20, 1950; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Columbia River Treaty, 87 Cong., 1 sess., March 8, 1961; "Senate Vote #12 in 1961," GovTrack website accessed August 22, 2013 (; "Great Lakes Update," April 2009, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District website accessed August 22, 2013 ( docs/UpdateArticles/Update175.pdf); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "President Roosevelt visits construction site of Grand Coulee Dam for second time on October 2, 1937." (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed August 22, 2013); "Treaty Relating to Cooperative Development of the Water Resources of the Columbia River Basin (with Annexes)" [full text of the Columbia River Treaty], Center for Columbia River History website accessed August 17, 2013 (; "U.S. Protest on Columbia's Diversion Told," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1955, p. 14.

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