The river of the west: the Columbia River’s source in British Columbia
May 29, 2022
Local-centric me! Until my recent trip to British Columbia, I thought of the Columbia River only as the geographic feature separating Oregon and Washington. Little did I know that it is so long and its watershed so vast, or that it originates in Canada and produces a huge percent of U.S. hydropower. The route of my recent trip was primarily within Canada’s portion of the Columbia River’s watershed, and although the river was not the focus of the trip, I was fascinated by what I learned. Maybe you’ll find it interesting too!
Recognizing the scale of what we now call the Columbia River, indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest named the watercourse “the big river” in their various languages. From the earliest days of human settlement, this river has been important for food (e.g., salmon), transportation, drinking and irrigation water, and, in modern times, power generation (hydroelectricity) and flood control. Because of its role in developing the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia has often been referred to as “the river of the west”, also the title of a 1997 book by Robert Clark chronicling the history of this great waterway.
Columbia River Treaty. This treaty between the United States and Canada was ratified in 1964. It was developed to address energy needs and flood control concerns within the Columbia River basin. As part of the treaty, three dams were built in British Columbia—Mica, Duncan, and Arrow (later renamed Hugh Keenleyside)—to supply hydroelectric power and storage for flood control. For example, the reservoir behind Mica Dam was low in May to provide space for spring runoff and prevent flooding (see photo of Mica Dam above). Payments associated with the treaty end in 2024, and negotiations are underway to revise and update the agreement.
Canada, in particular, has strong concerns about weaknesses in the existing treaty that removed productive agricultural and forestry lands from local economies and displaced communities (see flooded valley bottom land in photo above). Dams also inundated traditional First Nations’ sites and artifacts, and impacted fish and wildlife habitat. If you are interested in water law, this is an interesting case study. British Columbia’s provincial government has an excellent explanation of the treaty’s history and need for change: https://engage.gov.bc.ca/columbiarivertreaty/history/. I found an interesting article about the differences between U.S. and Canadian views, and the need for fixing the treaty: https://columbiainsight.org/how-and-why-to-fix-the-u-s-canada-columbia-river-treaty/.
The headwaters of the Columbia River involve stories of glacial action, indigenous settlements, efforts of diverse groups vying for resource use, and international negotiations. We can see a big river like the Columbia as a metaphor for many of our human endeavors. The Canadian experience motivates me to learn more about this “river of the west” in my own country!