Lessons Learned: From High Ross to the Columbia

Jeff Dornbos, an associate at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, provided the following guest post. He recently published an article, “All (Water) Politics Is Local: A Proposal for Resolving Transboundary Water Disputes” in the Fordham Environmental Law Review (here). In this guest post, he discusses how some of the lessons presented in that article apply to the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation. Jeff wishes to thank Laura Rogers-Raleigh for her valuable research assistance.

On April 2, 1984, the United States and Canada entered into a treaty that ended the High Ross Dam controversy, a protracted dispute over a proposal to raise the height of a hydroelectric dam located on the Skagit River in Washington State. Analysis of the dispute resolution processes, and the successful outcome of the treaty, suggest that there are several advantages to organizing transboundary-water-dispute negotiations around hydrologic boundaries rather than political boundaries.

The High Ross dam, a hydroelectric dam that generates power for Seattle, is built on the SkagitRiver, which flows from the Canadian provinceof British Columbia, across the border, and into the state of Washington. The controversy arose when Seattle Light Company developed a proposal to raise the dam in order to meet its growing demand for energy. Following through with the proposal would have generated more electricity for the city of Seattle, but it also would have flooded approximately 5,475 acres of pristine wilderness in British Columbia. Ultimately, after lengthy efforts to resolve the issue, the United States agreed not to raise the height of the dam in exchange for a long-term supply of electricity from Canada, at the price it would have cost to raise the dam.

Resolution of the High Ross Dam controversy was hailed as a success on both sides of the border. President Reagan noted that it was “constructively and ingeniously settled.” Canada’s external affairs minister and the U.S. Secretary of State said it could serve as a model for resolving other transboundary disputes. It was the process, however, not the resolution, that was the most interesting aspect of the dispute. Specifically, the successful negotiations took place between representatives of Seattle and British Columbia, not high-level officials from Ottawa and Washington. According to one negotiator involved in the process, both American and Canadian government officials told local officials to figure it out and then report back when they had a solution. In the end, it was the local negotiators who played the key role in resolving the dispute.

At least two studies of the controversy (an oral history project and a research paper that based its findings largely on interviews) suggest three factors contributed to the success of the negotiations: First, even though it was a transboundary dispute, local negotiators, with local knowledge and a stake in the outcome, played a central role in resolving the dispute. These negotiators were able to balance different interests without getting caught up in other, unrelated, disputes between the two countries. Second, the resolution included the participation of a variety of interest groups. Third, the availability of both scientific and experiential knowledge was useful in achieving a mutually acceptable resolution. As the authors of the Oral History Project stated, “experiential knowledge is not clearly distinct from scientific knowledge – the two inform and influence each other to create a more richly textured public wisdom.” Involving local negotiators helped to ensure availability of sound scientific and experiential knowledge regarding the transboundary water body.

These three lessons are consistent with three fundamental aspects of transboundary water resource management: fostering long-term cooperation, ensuring public participation, and gathering accurate data. Each of these is a focus of well-known water and environmental instruments, including the Berlin Rules, the Rio Declaration, and the Watercourses Convention. Long-term cooperation is necessary to avoid the tragedy of the commons (the prisoner’s dilemma provides another useful analogy). Accurate data gathering is essential for evaluating how the actions of those using the water resources will impact it in both the short and long term. And public participation is justified both as an ends in itself and as a mechanism for better decision making.

The three lessons are also consistent with the “watershed approach” to managing water systems whereby management of water resources is based on the boundaries of the watershed rather than political boundaries. The approach is based on the understanding that political boundaries are not always the best demarcation lines for managing water resources because watersheds often cross jurisdictional and political boundaries, including international frontiers The lessons of the High Ross Dam controversy also mirror very well the EPA’s three guiding principles to the watershed approach: getting those most directly affected by decisions involved in the decision making, focusing on the geographic boundaries of the water body, and basing decisions on strong science and data.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) recognizes that the watershed approach provides a useful framework for managing transboundary water resources. In one report, for example, the IJC highlighted resolution of the High Ross Dam controversy as one of its achievements in fostering transboundary environmental management. In that same report, developed in response to a request from the United States and Canada to provide proposals for how to best assist in meeting the “environmental challenges of the 21st century,” the IJC suggested developing international watershed boards to help resolve transboundary water disputes between the United States and Canada.

The High Ross Dam provides useful lessons for future transboundary water agreements, such as the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty, originally ratified in 1964, resulted from the desire of both the United States and Canada to cooperatively manage the Columbia River in order to control flooding and provide electricity. Pursuant to the treaty, the two countries constructed dams to generate electricity and regulate flooding, which have provided significant benefits to citizens of both nations.

Notwithstanding these benefits, some residents of the basin criticize the treaty, and construction of the dams, for leading to the flooding of fertile farmland, displacement of 2,300 residents, loss of tribal cultural sites, and destruction of wildlife habitats. Specifically, many residents of the basin argue that they were not given sufficient input in the original treaty negotiations. On the Canadian side, for example, dissatisfied residents have established the Columbia Basin Trust. The group’s stated function is to provide “advice on meaningful consultation processes with Basin Residents and local governments on any process to amend, renew or terminate” the Treaty. South of the border, the United States established a Sovereign Review Team that includes representatives from states, tribes, and relevant organizations, tasked with delivering recommendations for the future of the Treaty.

Although local groups are being given the opportunity to provide input on the renegotiation process, the Columbia River Treaty presents at least two opportunities for further involvement from local stakeholders. First, beyond simply getting input from local stakeholders, local negotiators could be empowered to participate in the negotiation process. Second, the treaty could be renegotiated to include the establishment of a watershed board, comprised of local experts and stakeholders from the basin, empowered to negotiate resolutions to disputes. Article XVI of the treaty, for example, could be amended to give this watershed board the ability to assist in settling differences. The board would be established around the geographic boundaries of the basin, tasked with studying the basin, and empowered to help settle differences that arise over time.

Transboundary water resources, by definition, do not fall neatly into political or jurisdictional boundaries. International transboundary water resources are not rare, as demonstrated by a United Nations-supported report, estimating that nearly half of the world’s population lives “in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries.” Developing sophisticated international watershed boards is unlikely to be feasible in many of these transboundary basins. But the lessons from the successful resolution of the High Ross Dam controversy suggest that there are advantages to structuring negotiations over transboundary water disputes around hydrologic boundaries, not just political boundaries. While international disputes may often require some involvement of “high-level” officials, these officials should look to the boundaries of the watershed at issue and involve local stakeholders who are as closely aligned as possible to that watershed. Transboundary water agreements, for example, could include a rebuttable presumption that negotiations over transboundary water disputes begin with identifiable groups organized at the most decentralized hydrological level. Ultimately, including this rebuttable presumption would help to meet the goals of fostering long-term cooperation, promoting public participation, and gathering accurate data, such as were keys to resolving the High Ross Dam controversy.

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