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Columbia River Treaty marks 50 years

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The Mica Generating Station, located along the Columbia River about 135 kilometres north of Revelstoke, has been in operation since 1977. It accounts for roughly 15 per cent of BC Hydro's installed capacity.

For five decades, the Columbia River projects have provided critical flood control and power generation

Fifty years ago, on September 16, 1964, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett and United States President Lyndon B. Johnson, met at the International Boundary at Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia, to ratify the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) and its Protocol.

For the past 50 years, the Columbia River Treaty and power projects on the river have helped shape power generation in Canada and the United States, and continue to do so today.

It began with a growing need for power

The onset of World War II attracted industrial developments across North America, and the economy and population grew quickly following the war. More energy was needed across Canada and the United States to power growing industries and a steadily increasing population.

Recurring floods became a serious issue

Another challenge facing the Columbia region was periodic but devastating floods. Built in the early 1930s, U.S. dams had minimal reservoir storage capability that did little to minimize flood risk to surrounding communities.

In 1948, severe floods in Canada and the U.S. resulted in 41 reported deaths, and 38,000 people were left homeless. Vanport, Oregon, a community with a population of 18,000, was completely destroyed.

In B.C., most of the lower part of the city of Trail was underwater, and residents and businesses throughout the Kootenays and Columbia were affected by flooding. The town of Creston lost more than $1 million in crops.

Discussions between the governments of Canada and the United States around possible development in the Columbia River basin began in 1944.

On January 17, 1961, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and United States President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Columbia River Treaty.

Ratification of the Columbia River Treaty

On September 16, 1964, United States President Lyndon Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and British Columbia Premier W.A.C. Bennett ratified the Columbia River Treaty and its Protocol. The previous three years were spent negotiating all aspects of the treaty, including where to locate the new dam sites.

Treaty brought three new dams, hydroelectric power, and flood control

The ratification of the Columbia River Treaty enabled the newly created BC Hydro to start construction of three major dams in B.C. to store 15.5 million acre feet of water and end the annual threat of flood damage in B.C., Washington, and Oregon.

Between 1964 and 1973, BC Hydro constructed Mica, Duncan, and Hugh L. Keenleyside dams. In return, the U.S. paid Canada $274.8 million on October 1, 1964, as well as additional amounts upon completion of each dam – totalling $69.6 million. The treaty also allowed the U.S. to construct Libby Dam.

Continuing the benefits 50 years later

Today, the Columbia River dams remain key facilities that continue to power the province, producing nearly half of the electricity generated each year by BC Hydro. The huge amount of water stored by these facilities regulates water flows and provides important flood protection both in Canada and the U.S.

That flood control was proven again in 2012 when the Columbia River experienced a near-record peak flood year, thanks to the high snowpack and record early summer rainfall. The Mica, Hugh L. Keenleyside and Duncan dams successfully reduced the Columbia River peak flows by about 70 percent, and prevented significant damage to Castlegar and Trail, and further downstream in the United States.

Canada continues to benefit from river flow regulation that allows more dependable power to be generated on both sides of the border. Under the terms of the treaty, Canada receives half of the increased power generated in the U.S. because of this flow regulation each year — called the 'Downstream Benefit'.

September 16, 2014 marks 50 years since the ratification of the Columbia River Treaty, a day that brought about a significant change for both Canada and the United States, and helped shape the picture of BC Hydro and British Columbia that we have today.

Managing the impacts

Construction of the dams altered the Columbia River ecosystem. BC Hydro continues to manage the environmental impacts of dam construction through the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program that funds programs each year to benefit fish, wildlife, and their habitat.

To address ongoing operation of its facilities, BC Hydro is implementing operational changes, projects, and studies recommended by the Columbia River Water Use Plan.

Columbia River Treaty 2014 Review

The Province of British Columbia is currently consulting with Basin residents during its review of the Columbia River Treaty. Learn more about the Columbia River Treaty and the review.