Climate change, invasive species, the Columbia River Treaty, salmon reintroduction, and how hydropower fits into a clean energy future. These were some of the main topics explored at the International Columbia Basin Transboundary Conference in Kimberley, B.C., Sept. 12-14.
Held every five years since 1994 and jointly sponsored by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Columbia Basin Trust, the sixth conference drew 288 participants who learned about Columbia Basin issues that cross the international border and celebrated arts and culture.
For the first time, representatives from Native American tribes in the U.S. and First Nations in Canada were invited to help plan and participate in “One River, One Future.” Dozens of high school and college students also attended.
The event was an opportunity to share some of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s work, and to involve and inform the public, NWPCC chair Jennifer Anders told the Council at its Sept. 17 meeting. She said involvement by tribes and First Nations; the enthusiasm of many young people who were present; and a trip to the Columbia’s headwaters at Canal Flats were some of the highlights.
Tribes and First Nations were a big presence throughout the conference, held in Ktunaxa Nation territory. It opened with the indigenous tradition of a grand entry to introduce elected officials and other dignitaries attending. A Ktunaxa Nation eagle staff stood beside the podium as the conference’s official flag. A fieldtrip to the headwaters featured a canoe ceremony, tribal dancing and storytelling.
The final day began with a session on indigenous voices, with five panelists representing Columbia Basin First Nations and Native American tribes who received a standing ovation after talking about the future of the Columbia River and what it means to their sovereign nations.
Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said that even the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged how connected indigenous people are to this river. “It’s kind of like asking, ‘Hey, what about that air you breathe?’" he said, and then quoted a Supreme Court decision which found that the river is “not much less necessary to the existence of the Indians than the atmosphere.” He noted that the four lower Columbia River tribes that CRITFC represents all have a unifying figure called Salmon who played a huge role in their creation stories and traditional gatherings, and that today, tribal fishery programs make up some of their largest budgets.
DR Michel, executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes, agreed that salmon played a key role in their ancestors’ lives, but said that link to the river was lost with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam nearly 80 years ago. Representatives from First Nations in Canada talked about how they never relinquished the title to their lands, which were taken over by settlers.
Wayne Christian, tribal chief of the Secwpemc Nation, said that in Canada, indigenous people weren’t considered citizens until a year before they were allowed to vote. He said they needed passes to leave their reservations and were kept away from their traditional territories, including the Columbia River. “We’ve not ceded, sold nor surrendered our lands, our resources, or anything on it,” he said.
Christian and other panelists emphasized the importance for all races to come together now and use traditional knowledge that First Nations have preserved to help overcome climate change, and help salmon find their way back to the upper Columbia. “Without it, I’m afraid 50 years from now there will be a climate where we won’t be able to breathe the air or drink the water,” he said.
Other sessions at the conference focused on some of those problems facing the Columbia River on both sides of the border today. They included:
Crystal Raymond, climate adaptation specialist at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, said that while there are lots of new studies with "great" information about the impacts of climate change in the Columbia Basin, the trends have not changed over the last 10 to 15 years. The degree of impacts will depend largely on how much carbon people continue to contribute to the atmosphere.
Raymond said that in general, the Columbia Basin can expect to see declining snowpack. Climate change will alter the timing and magnitude of runoff. It will increase stream temperatures, and have a strong effect on forest ecosystems, including more frequent and intense wildfire.
“The overall trends have not changed, and I think that’s a good indication that we have the information we need to prepare for these risks that are coming,” she concluded.
Tribal, Canadian and U.S. experts outlined the problems posed by a handful of invasives, especially northern pike, which have been spreading in the upper Columbia Basin but have not yet invaded the anadromous zone; and zebra and quagga mussels, which are found in every major waterway in the U.S. except the Columbia.
Catherine MacRae, an invasive plant specialist with Canada’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, also outlined B.C.’s problem with flowering rush, an invasive plant that interferes with irrigation, water timing and flow, displaces native plants and hampers swimming and boating. Invasives are generally nonnative species that can negatively impact the environment or economy.
Presenters talked about the importance of sharing information across borders, and public education. People who are aware of invasive species will help prevent the spread by recognizing and reporting new invasions, and by taking precautions to clean their clothing and water vessels after recreating. Those attending were treated to a demonstration by a mussel-sniffing dog at work.
Tribes and First Nations presented their work toward reintroducing salmon in the upper Columbia River.
John Sirois, committee coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes, talked about a phased approach to salmon passage in blocked areas, and how the tribes are pursing that through the Columbia River Treaty, through tribal initiatives and the NWPCC’s fish and wildlife program.
In the first phase, the tribes looked at upstream habitat and the options for getting adults upstream, and juveniles back down. The second phase will involve designing and testing those systems, and the third phase would be looking at permanent ways to make fish passage happen. In order to get there, Sirois said, it will be important for the region to “speak with one voice.”
Howie Wright, fisheries program manager for the Syilx Okanagan Nation Alliance, said First Nations in Canada have been working with U.S. tribes to expand that work across the water. He said that before Grand Coulee Dam was built, average runs above it ranged from 2.6 million to 3.7 million salmon and steelhead using thousands of miles of stream habitat. First Nations have also initiated programs in schools and have held ceremonial releases of salmon fry. And in July, the Canadian and B.C. governments signed a letter of agreement with three First Nations making a three-year commitment to look at the feasibility of reintroducing salmon to the upper Columbia. “It’s not if, it’s when,” Wright said of bringing salmon back to the region.
Transitioning to Clean Energy
Energy experts talked about the importance of hydroelectricity in the Northwest’s move away from fossil fuels.
Mike MacDougall, vice president of IT and trade policy at Powerex, said balancing demand—or load—with supply changes by the minute, the day, and the season. He explained that some forms of energy, like hydropower and natural gas, are flexible and can ramp up relatively quickly to meet demand.
Nuclear energy is not particularly flexible, and coal and geothermal energy are somewhere in the middle, he said. Wind and solar are uncertain fuel sources because they are only available when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. MacDougall said where that power comes from is increasingly driven by clean energy policies.
Karen Studarus, a resilience team lead in the electricity infrastructure group at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said that in order to keep supply and demand in balance, the system needs to be flexible—to be available when we want it, and where we want it. She said if there’s not an exact balance between load and demand, there’s a blackout. Hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River can respond quickly to ensure the grid is more resilient. They pick up the slack when the wind dies or the sun goes down, she noted.
Ann Rendahl, commissioner for the Washington UTC, said that in order to help reduce the impacts from climate change, many states in the West have adopted clean energy policies.
She pointed to several studies on how to reach those goals, and said that while each of them have different focuses and cover different geographic areas, they all resulted in the same pathways to reaching those clean energy goals.
That path includes increased energy efficiency, a greater reliance on the electric grid, and decarbonization of all energy sectors. She said there will be important considerations to be made when electrifying the system, but concluded, “I have a lot of hope that we can accomplish this. We have to make sure we do it in a way that’s clean and affordable and reliable.”