‘Roll on, Columbia,’ but with some amendments

OlympianJune 2, 2014 

For many years, my brother Jim handled media relations for a large investor-owned utility (what I like to call an IOU) in the Midwest. Whenever we get together, he still reminds me about Washington state’s low energy prices thanks in part to federally subsidized dams on the Columbia River and the Bonneville Power Administration.

For my part, I’m always sure to praise the virtues of public power and thank him for the contribution his tax dollars provide for my enjoyment of clean, renewable energy at rock-bottom prices.

My brother has a point. Thanks to the fact that more than 60 percent of our state’s energy comes from hydropower — much of it generated at dams that were paid for by federal dollars — the citizens of Washington, along with those of Oregon and Idaho, have the lowest residential electricity rates in the country (Washington state’s rates were actually the lowest in 2013) as well as cleaner air because we don’t rely on coal-fired generation.

What’s more, thanks to hydro, our state is the biggest user of renewable energy — bigger than both California and Texas even though those two states are bigger producers solar and wind-generated power.

But all that clean, relatively inexpensive energy comes at price to the environment and indigenous tribes in the U.S. and Canada that historically inhabited lands closest to the Columbia and its tributaries and continue to depend upon healthy runs of salmon for their livelihoods. The bill may be about to come due.

The reason is that in our day, the Columbia has been re-created from a free-flowing river into a complex power generation, transportation and irrigation system that historian Richard White calls “the organic machine.”

One little known component of that machine is the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada, ratified and implemented by both countries in September 1964. The treaty has no end-date but either party can terminate most of its current provisions (with the exception of flood control) in 2024 provided they give 10 year’s advance notice. This makes 2014 an important year for any proposed changes.

Because the current treaty is restricted to power generation and flood control, there are many voices, including tribal leaders and environmentalists on both sides of the border who think its scope needs to be expanded. They are correct in pointing out that much has changed since 1964, including recognition of reserved tribal fishing rights as well as realization of the negative environmental impacts of the dams, especially on Columbia River salmon.

Since 1991, 12 distinct populations of these once-abundant fish have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Also largely ignored in the original treaty negotiations were the small farms and whole towns that were inundated by reservoirs created by new dams the treaty helped to make possible.

I was recently invited to help plan and participate in a one-day conference held at Gonzaga University on “Ethics and the Columbia River Treaty: Righting Historic Wrongs.” Using the Catholic bishops’ 2001 pastoral letter, “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good” as its framework, conference planners sought to give voice to these legitimate social and environmental concerns as the deadline draws near.

The stories told by representatives of upper Columbia River tribes in the U.S. and First Nations in British Columbia as they described the demise of their historic fishing cultures brought on by industrial and agricultural development of the Columbia and the dams were especially compelling.

In a sense, the Columbia River Treaty provides the first major test of whether the Catholic bishops’ vision of the Columbia River watershed as a common good, held in trust by us not only for ourselves but also for future generations, is a viable one. Richard White describes how the Columbia “flows along the borders of the numerous divisions in our fractured society” as the site where these divisions play out.

“If the conversation is not about fish and justice,” he writes, “about electricity and ways of life, about production and nature, about beauty as well as efficiency, and about how these things are inseparable in our own tangled lives, then we have not come to terms with our history on this river.” As one conference participant put it, “Every student of Washington state history is familiar with Woody Guthrie’s famous song, ‘Roll on, Columbia.’ Renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty is an opportunity to add some missing verses.”

John Rosenberg serves as one of the pastors at The Lutheran Church of The Good Shepherd in Olympia, and a member of The Olympian’s 2014 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at jprosenberg360@gmail.com.

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