The Columbia river headwaters

The Columbia river headwaters, a spring at Canal Flats that feeds into Columbia Lake.

Photo: Angus Graeme, president of Selkirk College

Should citizens in Canada and the U.S. establish an International River Basin Organization and use it to replace or enhance the Columbia River Treaty process? The idea was presented, debated and then discussed in small groups as the last session of Columbia Basin Transboundary Conference in Kimberley, British Columbia on Sept. 12-14.

While calling it a “straw dog proposal,” presenters circulated a 5-page “Draft Proposal for Transforming Transboundary Water Governance in the Columbia River Basin,” created in July by an informal working group of water governance experts and interests. In the formal debate, none of the presenters took a position against its formation. Some argued that it should not replace the Columbia River Treaty process, although others argued it should.

International River Basin Organizations, or IRBOs, are non-governmental organizations set up to guide water policy and governance across international borders. According to Oregon State University research which developed a database of more than 120 IRBOs, this form of water governance has been increasingly used since the 1990s—with varying success—to help solve issues that arise from cross-boundary governance, such as water allocations, flood forecasting and poor water quality.

“An IRBO in the Columbia will unquestionably help meet the deficiencies of the [Columbia River Treaty] and can support the implementation of principles of adaptive management,” the draft proposal handed out at the conference states. “IRBOs provide a mechanism for enhanced public engagement and transparency, coordination, and scientific review, and can operate as a referral resource to address emerging issues. An IRBO can provide accountable oversight for technical management entities. It can be designed to comply with international norms regarding the rights of indigenous peoples,” it said.

A day earlier, both U.S. and Canadian officials spoke enthusiastically at the conference about progress in Columbia River Treaty negotiations, where negotiators had just met for their eighth round of discussions in nearby Cranbrook, B.C. It was the second negotiation to involve three First Nations from Canada as official observers. Representatives from a few U.S. tribes were also invited to give presentations during this round of negotiations.

Sylvain Fabi, Canada’s chief Columbia River Treaty negotiator, was a featured speaker at the conference, along with U.S. Consul General Katherine Dhanani, during a session on the Columbia River Treaty. Both emphasized the importance of stakeholder, tribal and First Nation input, and of including ecosystem functions in the new treaty discussions.

“This is important to note and emphasize—this is a precedent, and one that is long overdue,” Fabi said of Canada’s decision to invite the First Nations to be official observers in the treaty negotiations. He characterized their participation as “observer-plus,” explaining that First Nation representatives have led the discussions and presentations on restoring ecosystems and reintroducing salmon to the upper basin.

Fabi also pointed to a July 29 landmark agreement between Canada, British Columbia and three First Nations, on a commitment to collaborate on exploring the reintroduction of salmon into Canadian portions of the upper Columbia River.

Debaters said their arguments were academic, and did not necessarily reflect their views, or those of the institutions they represent.

Those who argued that the Columbia River Treaty process should go forward emphasized the work already accomplished both within the treaty negotiations and through other efforts that could get diluted with a new focus on creating an International River Basin Organization. They pointed to the lengthy and difficult effort it would take to develop relationships and create a new process for governing cross-boundary water governance.

But those debating to create an IRBO worried that indigenous voices and ecosystem functions will again be left out of the treaty.

“We’ve been invited to a lot of tables, usually by the settler powers,” Billy Barquin, attorney general for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, said during the debate. He said those tables usually dictate the agenda. “We don’t want your table. We want a different table,” he said.

Richard Paisley, an attorney and director of the Global Transboundary International Waters Governance Initiative at the University of British Columbia, said that if current Columbia River Treaty negotiations actually include salmon restoration and reintroduction, climate change and adaptive management, and legitimately bring in the perspectives of indigenous people, “so be it.” But, he argued, if the new treaty is unlikely to include all the complexities of governing transboundary Columbia River issues, it’s time to create an IRBO. He added, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”

In presenting the draft proposal, Adam Wicks-Arshack, a licensed attorney and doctorate student at the University of Idaho, said that the Columbia River Treaty is too limited. An IRBO, he said, would provide a formal process that is informed and guided by indigenous people from the Columbia Basin. And under an IRBO, he said, the health of the river system must be a priority along with hydropower and flood control. The process would support adaptive management, transparency, education and dialogue. “We need laws and governance approaches that reflect the dynamacy of river systems,” he said.

Wicks-Arshack continued, “You might say it’s naive to propose a new governance model. It might be a pie-in-the-sky objective. But when you step back, it was naive to propose managing a water system without ecosystem function.”

The draft proposal included both short-term and long-term goals of creating an IRBO.

It also acknowledged that the Columbia River Treaty will continue to be an important mechanism for governing flood risk and hydropower production. However, it says, even if it is modernized to include ecosystem-based functions, it will still be bound by its narrow focus on river flows and water storage.

“It is critical therefore, that the [Columbia River Treaty] forum be nested within a broader transboundary governance agreement which addresses the non-treaty related objectives,” the draft proposal states.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.