“No fishing. No gardening. No hunting. No land. No fresh water.” Jamie Dardar, in his Creole-Indian drawl, noted that below New Orleans, the Mississippi River’s delta is now losing one football field of land every hour. Maps are outdated with each wave.
In Jamie’s youth, gardens on Isle de Jean Charles spilled over with tomatoes, okra and vegetables galore. Fruit trees filled farmers’ bushel baskets. Wildlife, fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters provided the fare for feasts, sustenance and livelihoods.
As a young man Jamie left this paradise to drive 18-wheelers cross-country. But he quickly returned to the island’s bounty. Today he’s watching the sea-level rise and intense storms reduce his island to nothing. Land subsides as oil and gas extraction leave empty cavities. Abandoned drilling channels erode its shores. Oil spills and rusting rigs ruin local fisheries. Soil is too saline for crops or trees. From Minnesota on down, polluted waters pass dams and levees that retain floodplain sediment that could otherwise restore this delta.
The island’s residents now call their home “The Bathtub.” Jamie expects it will be under water in two years. He has re-applied to drive 18-wheelers along the Interstates.
The year just ended is the 50th anniversary of the Columbia River Treaty, a 1964 agreement between Canada and the United States on the development and operation of dams for flood control and hydroelectric power for both nations. Participants from the U.S., Canada and Tribal Nations gathered at the Columbia River Basin 2014 Conference in Spokane, Washington, October 21–23 in anticipation of renegotiating the treaty before its 60th anniversary in 2024. NWNL Director Alison Jones attended the Conference; you can read her notes here on the many topics covered.
The Conference was based on Chatham House Rule whereby participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity, nor the affiliation of the speakers, nor that of any other participant maybe revealed. This anonymity encourages openness and the sharing of information.
Though the treaty has resulted in enormous benefits for British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, there have long been concerns about social, economic and environmental effects associated with the construction and operation of the dams. The 2014 Conference served as a forum to share information on current issues and discuss the future of the Columbia River Basin. Key themes included ecosystem function, salmon restoration and fish passage, climate change, energy, transboundary river governance, and the future of the Columbia River Treaty.
The return of the Okanagan salmon is one of the success stories told at the 2014 Conference, yet there is still much else to be done. Fish passage around other dams needs to be restored; bears are eating more fawns due to lack of salmon; reservoir drawdowns leave sterile lakeshores that no longer support the larvae of caddis and mayflies, which are food for the fish; protections of ecosystem functions need to be strengthened.
Transboundary governance also needs to be broadened to include participation of the public and of Tribal and First Nations; ecological protections need to change from species-based approaches to threat-based approaches (e.g., invasive species and mining in the headwaters); and a network or central organization is needed for unified collaboration of the many entities already in the basin.
The conference closed with new awareness, new alliances, and a unified commitment among U.S. and Canadian stakeholders, youth and Tribal and First Nations able to discuss and facilitate sustainable management solutions for both upstream and downstream interests to create a healthy Columbia River Basin. The resolution of ways to reach a more appropriate and effective transboundary treaty could be a great model for other global transboundary watersheds.
The Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane, Washington, has committed to continue the work with conference organizers on key issues and interest areas at the Forum’s conference this coming April. — RW