A River Captured

The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change

ISBN 9781771601788
Softcover | Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Book Dimensions: 5.75 in x 7.75 in
288 Pages

About the Book

A River Captured explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and its impact on the ecosystems, indigenous peoples, contemporary culture, provincial politics and recent history of southeastern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

Long lauded as a model of international cooperation, the Columbia River Treaty governs the storage and management of the waters of the upper Columbia River basin, a region rich in water resources, with a natural geography well suited to hydroelectric megaprojects. The Treaty also caused the displacement of over 2,000 residents of over a dozen communities, flooded and destroyed archaeological sites and up-ended once-healthy fisheries.

The book begins with a review of key historical events that preceded the Treaty, including the Depression-era construction of Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, a project that resulted in the extirpation of prolific runs of chinook, coho and sockeye into B.C. Prompted by concerns over the 1948 flood, American and Canadian political leaders began to focus their policy energy on governing the flow of the snow-charged Columbia to suit agricultural and industrial interests.

Referring to national and provincial politics, First Nations history, and ecology, the narrative weaves from the present day to the past and back again in an engaging and unflinching examination of how and why Canada decided to sell water storage rights to American interests. The resulting Treaty flooded three major river valleys with four dams, all constructed in a single decade.

At the heart of this survey of the Treaty and its impacts is the lack of consultation with local people. Those outside the region in urban areas or government benefited most. Those living in the region suffered the most losses. Specific stories of affected individuals are laced with accounts of betrayal, broken promises and unfair treatment, all of which serve as a reminder of the significant impact that policy, international agreements and corporate resource extraction can have on the individual’s ability to live a grounded life, in a particular place.

Another little-known aspect of the Treaty’s history is the 1956 “extinction” of the Arrow Lakes Indians, or Sinixt, whose transboundary traditional territory once stretched from Washington State to the mountains above Revelstoke, B.C. Several thousand Sinixt today living south of the border have no rights or status in Canada, despite their inherent aboriginal rights to land that was given over by the Treaty to hydroelectric production and agricultural flood control.

With one of the Treaty’s provisions set to change in 2024, and with termination of the treaty requiring a 10-year notice period, the question of whether or not to renew, renegotiate or terminate this water agreement is now being actively discussed by governments and policy makers. A River Captured surveys important history that can influence debate on who owns water, how water should be valued and whether or not rivers can be managed for non-human values such as fisheries, as well as the familiar call for more affordable electricity.

About the Author(s)

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes is a writer who explores landscape and the human imagination, with a focus on the history of the upper Columbia River and its tributaries. Born in the United States, educated at Stanford University (B.A., English) and the University of British Columbia (M.A., English), Eileen has been a resident of Canada since 1985. She writes two popular columns on Canadian landscape history for The North Columbia Monthly and the online news website The Nelson Daily. Because of her personal experiences, education and academic interests, Eileen’s perspective on landscape, water and culture is uniquely binational. In 2014 she curated an extensive exhibit on the history of the Upper Columbia River system in Canada for the Touchstones Nelson museum and the Columbia Basin Trust, with specific reference to dramatic ecological changes both before and after the Columbia River Treaty (1961–64), as well as a history of the government policy that shaped this international water treaty. The exhibition won an award of excellence from the Canadian Museum Association. She lives in Nelson, British Columbia.