Pricing the Priceless

How a 60-year-old treaty cripples the Kootenays

The outdated terms and priorities of the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) have limited hydroelectric infrastructure projects in their ability to modernize according to current perspectives of our natural resources and social responsibilities. The CRT was negotiated and signed without any prior consultation with the people who would be impacted or an environmental assessment of what would be lost when the land was flooded[1]. In the 1950s and 60s the Columbia watershed was treated as a lifeless commodity that had been emptied of its only economic value, the fish, and was ready to be harnessed by the awesome power of human engineering and technology. Sixty years later the Columbia River watershed is now known to be an integral part of an enormous and diverse ecosystem that provides services which simply cannot be reduced to a line item on a balance sheet. How then can governments assess the continuation of a Columbia River Treaty that fails to account for what is considered priceless?

The headwaters and first third of the Columbia River system are in Canada; tracing your finger along its massive 2000km long path is a long meandering journey full of twists and turns that can leave you wondering which way the water flows[2]. As you let your eyes fall across the dizzying array of branches that spill across the map beneath it you begin to comprehend the vast amount of water that has poured off the mountains that surround the headwaters of Columbia River for centuries. Fueled entirely by the raw power of nature, it is a system of energy production and exchange human technology could only dream to reconstruct. And dreaming of making use that energy is exactly what governments have been doing. Throughout the last 150 years many have attempted, with great success, to harness that energy and to control its flow over the rock by building dams both large and small with little consideration for the ecosystems that lay within its boundaries.

Only 300 years ago a different kind of energy was gathered and expended on the shorelines of the Columbia River Basin. Fish were the primary natural resource; a vital source of energy for thousands of indigenous people who lived within walking distance of its banks. The knowledge of the river these original inhabitants had enabled those such as Thompson, Lewis and Clark to navigate its wild passages and, eventually, settle along its fertile banks[3]. By the mid 1800s small-pox and malaria had halved the indigenous population resulting in a noticeable absence of people working amidst the waters[4]. In this void a new harvest of natures power had begun, hydroelectricity. European colonialists had long dreamed about the potential for generating hydro-electric energy on the Columbia River. As early as 1833 the first dam was constructed on the banks of the Columbia[5]. Knowing just how many dams and reservoirs there are currently on the Columbia River today depends on who you ask. There are 14-18 major hydro dams on the main stem alone, another 100- 280 smaller hydro electric dams as well as over 200 reservoir dams along its 2000km path[6]. Most of these are in the U.S. providing 44% of hydroelectricity to 7 states as well as water storage for both irrigation and flood control[7]. On the Canadian side hydro-electric production on the Columbia accounts for 58% of BC Hydro’s total capacity[8]. While there are far fewer dams and a handful of reservoirs in Canada their impacts and the treaty that governs them are much more well known here in B.C. than they are to Americans in the Columbia basin. You would be hard pressed to find a Kootenay resident who is not familiar with the CRT and the three the Canadian dams (Mica, Arrow and Duncan) constructed because of it.

Modern Environmental Perspectives

The Columbia River Treaty (CRT), signed in 1964, is sometimes considered one of the most successful international water agreements in history and from a perspective based purely on politics it has been but from an environmental perspective it has been a catastrophic failure. When it was drafted in 1964 the CRT focused on two main objectives: hydro-electric power and flood control for downstream communities[9]. What is now considered too narrow a focus, it failed to consider and account for the social, economic and environmental costs to those who would be directly impacted. Today the devastating ecosystem impacts of large-scale storage reservoirs is much more widely understood and researched while evaluators and economists still struggle to put a price on the irreplaceable[10]. Thanks to a modern environmental movement, dams on the scale of Mica, Arrow and Libby are assumed to have consequences for local wildlife that lives along shorelines even when we do not fully understand what those might be. Arrow Lakes residents, however, have long understood these consequences, and some feel British Columbians would be better off without the treaty and the dams holding water for the U.S.[11]

Farewell Fish

Collectively our perspective of the importance and significance of salmon in our rivers has drastically shifted in the past 60 years. Today there is a greater acknowledgement of the environmental harm caused when a river is captured for hydroelectricity. A great deal of effort has been made to restore salmon to the Columbia by replacing containment dams with run-of-river dams that allow fish to continue upstream[12]. They can now reach as far as Grand Coulee whose construction in 1942 consequently ended the migration of four species of fish that would swim upriver to spawn in the cold Canadian waters. In 1934, when the newly formed U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation wrote to ask about whether they should construct a 12 km fish ladder at Grand Coulee to enable the fish to continue past the dam into the Canadian portion of the Columbia, the Canadian Department of Fisheries said in their reply that the fish were of no national importance and so the fish ladder was never built[13]. By today’s environmental standards this is an obvious atrocity to a vitally important indigenous food source but when conversations began in the 1940s the fish and people that were once such an integral part of the landscape were virtually nonexistent. By 1939 one of the four major fish species, the large chinook salmon, was considered extinct[14]. In 1941 during public consultations in the Kootenays about development on the Canadian side of the Columbia the Commission was asked to “protect BC interests” and make the public aware of the impacts to the fish[15]. Truth was the Canadian government had no idea what the impacts would be and never would. The cost benefit analysis, if there had been one, held no line item for the loss of the salmon fishery because by the 1940s there was no longer one left. The canning industry that had replaced the indigenous harvest had wiped them out. The timing could not have been more perfect to completely disregard the fish.

The End of an Ecosystem

An environmental assessment of what would be lost was not completed until after the dams were constructed in 1974 when BC Hydro hired a consultant to do an impact survey of the three storage dams[16]. By its account 86,000 acres of harvestable forest was flooded along with the entire riparian habitat for each of the three ecosystems, a total of 4500 acres[17]. Wetlands that were once home to an unknown number of waterfowl, songbirds, small and large mammals as well as the spawning grounds for a local salmon fishery all gone. It was reported that there was “a near total displacement” of the songbirds and wildlife that called the shores of the Arrow Lakes home[18]. Over the course of a year the forest that remained fell silent.

What is the value of an ecosystem? A watershed? How does a society driven by capitalism put a price on something as intangible as a morning chorus of birdsong? Recently environmentalists around the world have made attempts to include in their assessments the value of services provided by ecosystems and have coined the term “ecosystem services”. In 2014 the David Suzuki Foundation published a 69-page report that placed economic value on the diverse array of ecosystems within the Peace watershed that would be impacted by the continued construction of Site C dam[19]. Containing line items for things such as air filtration by trees, carbon storage and sequestration, habitat, and pollination, an appraisal that includes a value for the services of an ecosystem goes much further than anyone who worked on the CRT would have ever considered. Times have changed. And while 60 years ago anyone living on the edges of the Arrow lakes would have likely included many of those things in their own valuations of their properties and lifestyles, they were not things that BC Hydro, the Provincial or Federal government gave value when making the decision to permanently flood 110,000 hectares of valley bottom in exchange for a cheque to add to Provincial revenue[20]. When the Canadian government eventually signed the CRT in 1961 there was no mention of the fish.

Ecological Costs versus Cash

The flood protection and increased hydro-electricity production enjoyed by the U.S. due to the CRT dams has been paid back to Canadians in the form of what is known as the “Canadian Entitlement” which has been anywhere from $100-300 million dollars annually[21]. The Province currently states the Canadian entitlement to be worth $150 million[22] but does that cover the cost paid by basin residents? At the time many of the dams were constructed there was a prevailing political mindset that commodifying natural resources such as rivers was a kind of civic duty and no costs were allocated to the other resources that were sacrificed; those were “opportunity costs” and were irrelevant as far as provincial and federal governments were concerned but locals remain very much concerned. As treaty obligations for flood control are set to expire within a few short years, in 2024, with the first opportunity to terminate the agreement being in 2014[23]. Two years in advance of that deadline the Province conducted a series of consultations with stakeholders and finally published an impact assessment[24]; it was disappointing at best, merely an amalgamation of existing information, no additional research was conducted and there was no attempt to assess “net” impacts of the project and assigned no dollar value to the lost “opportunity costs” of the CRT.

When engaged in discussions of modernizing the Columbia River Treaty these kinds of calculations must be included; fifty years and millions of dollars later the Province still has no financial analysis to know if the CRT continues to make economic sense. The 2012 Provincial Impact and Benefits report identified some of the impacts but failed to value and estimate the costs paid by Basin residents.

Flooding a Forest

When 86,000 acres of harvestable forest was cleared and flooded to fulfil the terms of the CRT there was no financial analysis about ‘opportunity costs’ associated with the loss of timber nor the effect it would have on existing forestry businesses operating on the Columbia. The loss was estimated to be 1.1-1.9 billion board feet of logs and the same of pulpwood resulting in a loss of 19.6-27.6 million board feet annually[25]. Using figures from a 2017 annual report from the BC forest industry suggests that forest today would have been worth $84 million in revenue every twenty years[26]. Since 1960 the forest would have been harvested 3-4 times. That economic loss is not accounted for anywhere in the CRT evaluations. A forest has more than just trees; Harvesters of wild foods are often locals who sell to high-end restaurants or exporters and provide direct economic influx to small communities. A 2010 case study estimated that the black huckleberry harvest in the Canadian portion of the Columbia River Basin could be worth anywhere between $91,000 and $685,000 annually[27]. Mushrooms, another cash crop that grow in well-managed BC forests particularly after a fire, are estimated to have a potential export value of 1.2 million dollars annually[28]. In terms of climate change and global warming the carbon sequestration services provided by a forest ecosystem are now recognized to have value to the communities in which they exist and contribute to solving the global climate crisis. Using per acre values provided by the David Suzuki Foundation, the 86,000 acres of forest that was flooded has a current annual value of $3.5 million in wildlife habitat, $1.8 million in recreation opportunity, $101 million in carbon storage and $2.8 million in clear air[29]. For those keeping track that is, in current figures, $115 million dollars the forest flooded by the CRT is potentially worth annually.

What about the wetland?

Today we know that wetlands and riparian areas are some of the most ecologically diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet[30]. The Province has allocated millions of dollars to various. fish and wetland recovery programs since the flooding occurred[31]. Beyond destroying thousands of kilometers of shoreline habitat, an additional 4500 acres of waterfowl habitat was submerged under a deep lake of lifeless water; an ecosystem loss worth approximately $1.7 million dollars annually[32]. The carbon storage capacity of wetlands is roughly double forest or agricultural land and represents an ecosystem service value of $11 million. Additionally, the natural flood control capacity of the wetlands flooded by the CRT have an estimated value of $1.1 million.  That is $13.8 million of annual benefit once provided at no cost by marshlands the Columbia Basin Trust and local environmentalists have spent millions to try and recreate.

Don’t Forget the Farms

The CRT project resulted in 17,600 acres of high-quality Canadian farmland being placed underwater while in the U.S. floodplains were able to be more extensively used due to the additional flood control[33]. Based on 2011 census data that means 0.001% of the total farmland in BC is underwater thanks to the Provincial government[34]. Ironically, BCs agriculture industry has long been concerned with an ever-shrinking amount of Class 1 arable land base in BC. Using BC’s Ministry of Agriculture 2016 revenue data can help show how that loss of land represents an annual economic loss the community of $4.7 million dollars in cash-based sales and $3.2 million dollars in exports[35]. The loss of cropland represents $20 million in carbon storage laying at the bottom of a lake[36]. Pollination, water and air filtration combine with cultural ecosystem service values for another $1.5 million of annual value. Bed and breakfast income aside the farms that were flooded as part of the CBT had a roughly estimated annual value of $30 million.

The Province states the Canadian Entitlement is worth approximately $150 million annually and goes into Provincial coffers while $160 million of estimated annual ecosystem and economic value has been lost by the communities impacted by the CBT. That value does not even begin to account for the fish.

Politics and Policy

Those who have negotiated the political boundaries, treaties and decisions that shaped the Columbia River Basin are not the same as those who felt the effects of their choices; for 200 years people in comfortable offices far away in Washington, Vancouver, Britain, or Ottawa made agreements that kept the peace between our American neighbours but failed to stand up for Canadians. Approximately 2300 people were displaced when the Arrow Lakes were flooded; the region’s experience with dams and reservoirs is a stark contrast to the U.S. experience[37]. In a case of arguable environmental racism, the flooding of 275,000 acres of valley bottom in Canada transformed 671,000 acres of central Washington desert into fertile farmland[38]. The terms of the CRT have made Canadians beholden to the needs and demands of Americans regardless of their own needs and daily life. Fluctuating lake levels, of no concern to the US, have crippled any potential tourism benefit residents hoped to enjoy. The CRT remains as one more in a long history of decisions that would end a way of life not understood by men with pens and suits. What happens when governance of an ecosystem takes place thousands of kilometers away?

Indigenous Environmental Change

Each year, for as many as seven thousand years, the Sinixt peoples and other first nations communities, would catch baskets full of the millions of salmon that swam up the river to spawn[39]. Their harvest was strictly governed by a salmon chief whose role was to hold the traditions and practices that safeguarded a bountiful harvest. Smallpox outbreaks in 1809 and the 1830s were followed by an annual malaria season that saw the indigenous population along the shores of the Columbia halve by 1855[40]. In 1862 the last salmon chief of the Columbia River died of smallpox and a successor was not named; there were noticeably fewer fish and first nations[41]. While the Sinixt people were reeling from sweeping changes to their way of life, thousands of kilometers away, the British and new U.S. governments from 1811 through the 1840s were engaged in border negotiations that would ultimately slice the basin in two; by 1846 the 49th parallel boundary was drawn, the river basin was divided, hundreds of waterways were sliced in two, the traditional territory of the Sinixt people was separated by two countries, and the Oregon Treaty turned the Columbia River into an international waterway with the headwaters in Canada and the mouth in the US. By 1909 the Boundary Waters Treaty replaced the Oregon Treaty, the two countries were authorized to form the International Joint Commission, a permanent committee of 6 members 3 from each country, tasked with negotiating the management of a river that defined water as a commodity[42]. In 2012 the water licenses for the Kootenay area dams were worth $126 million to the Province[43], sold by those who may never see or hear or feel the power of what it may have been like free and flowing. The CRT dams turned a living breathing river system into three lifeless lakes of water prone to wind gusts and changing weather, with ugly shorelines devoid of life and littered with evidence of the death and destruction that brought them into being[44]. To stand on their shores is to feel it; the beach wreaks of death.  The Boundary Waters Treaty said nothing about the fish.

Commodifying Natural Resources

Throughout the early 1900s, keeping with an ideology of commodifying natural resources, U.S. government agencies developed various plans, policies and projects that would maximize usage of the mighty flow Columbia River while the Canadian government sat idly by and did nothing[45]. Negotiations that would eventually result in the ratification of the Columbia River Treaty in 1964 spanned two decades and the events surrounding the decision paint a picture of indifference and incompetence on the part of the Canadian federal government. In 1937 Premier Duff of BC wrote to Prime Minister King to request a large-scale study of hydro development on the Columbia; King told Premier Duff to delay until the Americans approached Canada[46]. By 1940 the U.S. had already built three large dams on the Columbia with Grand Coulee on the horizon. The Canadian government had proven their disinterest in the ecosystems of the upper Columbia to the Americans when they said a fish ladder was not necessary. When in 1947 the U.S. bureau of Land Reclamation published an in-depth analysis of the Columbia River as a resource the U.S. government stated clear intentions to harness the power of the water and turn it into a commodity the Canadian government had zero data of its own to understand the impacts on basin residents[47]. The following year, in 1948, the Canadian government spent $1 million to make maps of the upper Columbia the maps identified wetland and archaeological sites as well as timber forests and the unique geographic features of the riverbed, another assessment would not be made until 1974.

The lack of prior assessment and analysis on the Canadian side meant both provincial and federal officials were involved in a political game which they were truly ill-equipped to play. During this time no one from the provincial or federal government asked the people who lived in the Arrow Lakes region what the impact to them would be to use their valley to protect those downstream from further flooding. In 1954 their ferry service was cancelled, and the communities mourned the end of an era under a shadow of impending doom as rumours of dams and flooding swirled[48]. In 1956 Canada declared the Arrow Lakes Indian Band (the Sinixt people) officially extinct and the tiny 255-acre reserve was converted to crown land; a move that is just one more in a series of decisions steeped in racism that continues to harm a fractured indigenous community to this day[49]. News reports of Premier Bennett’s two rivers plan mentioned the three dams that would pay for a Peace River project. After the treaty was signed in 1961 an archeological survey was conducted, and late that year after the deal had been signed, 20 years after the first consultations, the people finally had their chance to voice their concerns, but the land had already been sold out from under them[50].

The government was made aware that there were alternatives to the dams that were eventually built at Libby, Duncan, Arrow and Mica; in 1967 an academic named John Krutilla published a thorough economic valuation of the project and found there were better alternatives[51]. He also drew attention to the questionable economics of the project stating the net benefit to both countries would be the same if they were to act on their own and suggested “international agreements should not seek to address planning and operating details”. A concerned forester and bright young man, Richard Deane had also taken up the cause several years earlier and pitched multiple alternatives to the Provincial government’s proposal, all were rejected[52]. Premiere Bennett was too focused on his “Two Rivers” plan to consider the real logistics of his plan, all he saw was dollar signs. The social, political, and environmental impacts of the Columbia River Treaty dams were haphazardly considered and neglected to account for many of the costs the region’s residents would pay.


Many of the people living in the Columbia River Basin feel betrayed by their government because of the CRT and the dams that reshaped their valley; they believe the Provincial government failed to properly account for the social and environmental costs of the dams and considered only the revenue they would create. By today’s accounting they appear correct. The terms of the CRT require a 10-year cancellation plan to allow all parties to have time to construct additional infrastructure currently provided by the CRT partnership, the earliest date for alteration was in 2014, and the treaty is in full effect until 2024[53]. In the 21st century societal viewpoints have shifted and there is increasing pressure to assign value to ecosystems in the financial analysis of energy projects. In the years leading up to the 2014 deadline multiple stakeholders were consulted on both sides of the border with dramatically different results. On the Canadian side 50-100 people attended public meetings and provided input on the impacts of the dams whereas a meeting in Wenatchee failed to draw a single member of the public. In March 2014, ahead of a U.S. decision, the Provincial government announced its intentions to continue the CRT and make amendments to modernized it from within. Since then, 10 meetings between the two countries have taken place though few details about those meetings have been released and public engagement continues[54]. In December of 2020 President Trump was approached about ending the CRT all together as it financially no longer makes sense[55]. He’s right, it doesn’t so maybe it is time to do just that.

At first glance the “Canadian Entitlement” appears to be a good deal for British Columbians but when we start assigning dollar values the price paid for that cheque begins to feel inadequate. Annually the Province receives roughly $150 million cash under the current terms of the CRT. Sadly, the social, environmental, and economic costs of major public infrastructure such as the CRT dams go beyond what can be assigned a dollar value. Economic cost/benefit valuations cannot represent the loss of a way of life and some of the most important things in our lives are truly priceless. In the case of the Columbia River Treaty and the whole history of the Columbia basin, decisions that would have significant local impact were made by people who will never feel them. The economic and social value of the flooded land to those who live in the valley far surpasses what is transferred into the Provincial revenue account. The CRT dams were never needed for flood control. The Americans could have come up with another flood protection plan. The hydro electricity they generated could have been produced by dams that flooded less land. The Provincial government currently continues to negotiate the CRT’s existence. As 2024 approaches and our obligation to provide flood control to the U.S. ends it is an opportunity to reassess hydro development on the Columbia and whether a $100 million ‘Canadian Entitlement’ of cash or power is worth the economic, environmental, and social costs.

We still haven’t accounted for the fish.

[1] Wilson, J. W. (1973). People in the Way : The Human Aspects of the Columbia River Project. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.


[3] White, Richard. “Chapter 1: Knowing Nature through Labor.” In The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, 3–29. New York: Hill & Wang, 1995

[4] Pearkes, E. D. (2016). A River Captured : The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change. RMB | Rocky Mountain Books.

[5] Pearkes Ch.3

[6] Sandford, R. W., Harford, D., & O’Riordan, J. (2014). The Columbia River Treaty : A Primer. Rocky Mountain Books.

[7] U.S. Energy & Information Administration

[8] BC Hydro

[9] Sandford, Harford & O’Riordan



[12] Wikipedia map see 2

[13] Pearkes 2016 Ch 1.1 Preparing the Ground.

[14] Pearkes Ch 1.1

[15] Pearkes

[16] Dance, A. (2014). DIKES, DUCKS, AND DAMS: Environmental Change and the Politics of Reclamation at Creston Flats, 1882-2014. BC Studies, 184, 11–44.

[17] Sandford, Harford & O’Riordan

[18] Pearkes Ch 4.1

[19] Sara Wilson, The Peace Dividend: Assessing the Economic Value of Ecosystems in BC’s Peace River Watershed, Natural Capital Research and Consulting, 2014   

[20] Wilson; Pearkes; Sandford, Harford & O’Riordan


[22] See 21

[23] See 21

[24] A Review of the Range of Impacts and Benefits of the Columbia River Treaty on Basin Communities, the Region and the Province Prepared for: Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas Columbia River Treaty Review By

George E. Penfold, M.Sc., RPP Community Planning and Development Consulting December 5, 2012

[25] Pearkes


[27] Hobby, T. and M.E. Keefer. 2010. A black huckleberry case study in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management 11(1&2):52–61.

[28] Keefer, M.E., R. Winder, and T. Hobby. 2010. Commercial development of non-timber forest resources: A case study of morels in the East Kootenay, British Columbia. BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management 11(1&2):39–51.

[29] Wilson 2014

[30] Edella Schlager, & William Blomquist. (2008). Embracing Watershed Politics. University Press of Colorado.

[31] Penfold

[32] Wilson 2014

[33] Pearkes


[35] 2016 Census of Agriculture published 2019

[36] Wilson 2014

[37] Wilson 1974

[38] Sandford, Harford & O’Riordan

[39] Pearkes

[40] White.

[41] Pearkes

[42] Pearkes

[43] Sandford, Robert William, Harford, Deborah, and O’Riordan, Jon. The Columbia River Treaty : A Primer. Victoria: RMB Rocky Mountain Books, 2014. Accessed April 12, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[44] Pearkes

[45] Pearkes

[46] Pearkes

[47] Pearkes

[48] Wilson 1974

[49] Pearkes

[50] Pearks; Sandford, Harford & O’Riordan; Wilson 1974

[51] Pearkes

[52] Pearkes

[53] See 21

[54] – Provincial Timeline