Columbia River Treaty must consider ag

The Columbia River houses the largest hydropower project in North America.

The Columbia River Treaty was ratified in 1964 between the United States and Canada.

It does not have an official end date, but either country can choose to change or terminate the treaty with 10 years notice.

The treaty has been heavily criticized for its negative impact on the environment, First Nations and ecosystems.

Nonetheless, the treaty deals mainly with power maximization and flood prevention. In fact, the U.S. had started building dams since the 1930s to create power, prevent floods and create a constant water supply for irrigation of crops.

It realized that additional water storage was necessary to achieve the maximum potential of the river, and the most viable option was across the border.

Canada is compensated by receiving half of the electricity produced as well as monetary compensation for flood prevention.

Unfortunately for Canada, it failed to realize that it was providing the State of Washington with a constant water supply, which has led to a boom in high-value crops and put immense pressure on British Columbia’s agriculture industry.

The resulting production from a constant and abundant water supply stemming from the Columbia Basin Project is valued at $1.2 billion a year. This provides 30 to 50 percent of all income in the counties served by the project.


A $5 billion agriculture industry in Washington has brought tremendous benefits.

Before the treaty, Washington produced mainly lower valued goods, such as wheat and other grain.

Now, with reliable and abundant irrigation, farmers are able to harvest higher valued crops such as apples and specialty crops such as wine grapes and mint.

The treaty led to a loss of fertile, low elevation land in Canada. Arable farmland and orchards such as those in the Arrow Lakes and Koocanusa reservoirs were flooded.

The Arrow Lakes Valley was mainly a forestry, mining and agriculture based community before the creation of the reservoirs. In the past, farms in Washington and B.C. were of similar sizes.

Current Canadian producers are unable to compete with the low-cost imports from Washington, which were all made possible by the treaty.

Washington producers are controlling and dominating the market. To be more specific, let us look at the apple industry.

The Okanagan Valley produces 2.5 million boxes of apples and pears every year, and that number is decreasing. Meanwhile, Washington has been producing 105 to 120 million boxes a year, which is more than needed domestically and leads to cheap imports in B.C.


We need to help our local farmers be profitable and maintain their land. Canadian farmers affected by cheap imports should be considered in treaty renegotiations because the treaty affects production costs.

Alternatives to ensure financial security for affected farmers and a strong Canadian agriculture industry include government subsidies, government protection and the re- establishment of anti-dumping tariffs.

Re-establishing anti-dumping tariffs would mean imports couldn’t be sold below the cost of production.

The Columbia River Treaty brings flood control, hydropower and dependable irrigation for those south of the border, while in Canada it brings weaker production rates and flooded lands.

However, many Americans still question the Canadian entitlement.

Renegotiations are in place, and we hope the voices and pleas of our producers will be heard. Let us hope that the renegotiations will include a more equitable share of agricultural benefits of Canadian storage with farmers in B.C.

Kimberly Ongtenco and Nick Proulx-Jones are working on a Columbia River Treaty project as part of their final year of engineering studies at McGill University.


  • Mike Coleman

    The US has done a great job in the past of getting a good deal for itself. Lets hope Canada understands that the climate is changing and not for the better. It may be time to walk away from the treaty. The US is worried about water shortages for themselves and their farmers not ours.