A group of local people have broached the subject of a controversial major infrastructure project on Lake Koocanusa and are working to make it part of the public discourse.
The “Build A Weir At Koocanusa” committee are discussing the concept of an actual weir being built across Lake Koocanusa, just north of the Canada-U.S. border.
The idea has picked up steam lately, fueled by the ongoing re-negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada. The treaty, committee members say, unfairly favours the U.S., and the currently negotiations are ignoring the concerns of the Kootenay region.
The Columbia River Treaty is a 1964 agreement between Canada and the U.S. on the creation and operation of dams in the upper Columbia River.
Four dams were built under this treaty, three in B.C. and one in Montana — the Libby Dam, which meant flooding a widespread area on the Canadian side to create the Koocanusa Reservoir. The levels of this lake are controlled by the U.S. for downstream flood control, irrigation and power generation, and fish habitat conservation.
The group has been vocal with their concerns about the effects American control of the Libby Dam has on the recreation-based communities around Koocanusa.
The immediate issue for the Build The Weir at Koocanusa committee is the yearly drawdown on the American side, which leaves the Canadian communities with not enough of a pool to serve those recreation needs.
“Building a weir would take back the control [of water levels] that we don’t have today,” said Mario Scodellaro, one of the committee members.
Koocanusa Reservoir’s “full pool” is 2,459 feet. 2,440 feet would be enough for the Koocanusa communities, Scodellaro said.
Committee member Ken Bettin said weir construction would cost a few million dollars, but return some water level control to the Canadians.
“It would serve the East Kootenay,” Bettin said. “It would only have a minor effect on the American side.
“Right now, [the U.S.] is not paying for the damage that was done to the flooded valley, nor the varying affect on the recreation-based communities around Koocanusa.”
Lake Koocanusa has the potential to be a tourism and recreational paradise, he said. And the weir would help the area achieve that potential.
Scodellaro said the main argument against building a weir isn’t cost, or even the building of it, which would be relatively simple, but that it may affect flood control south of the border.
“But it won’t,” he said. “Because the Libby Dam controls the flood.”
Scodellaro refers back to General Andrew McNaughton, one of the Canadian negotiators with the original treaty talks with the U.S.
“He was fired by [Prime Minister John] Diefenbaker, because he was too opposed to what became the final deal. His opinion was not to sign this treaty, in 1964, because it favoured the U.S. But that was the treaty that was signed — and is currently being renegotiated.”
“The U.S. got extra flood control — that’s the major benefit — as well as water for irrigation,” Scodellaro said. “Canada gets nothing for storing the water.”
What Canada got was a $64 million one time cash payment for 60 years of flood control. Canada is also supposed to get one half of the extra power generated from the dams, produced as a result of the treaty.
“They produce much more than what I think they’re paying us,” Scodellaro said.
“In 2017, the Libby Dam produced $138 million worth of power. They’ve received all this power from the Libby Dam over 40 years, and Canada has not received one cent.”
The Americans allocate some power to BC Hydro, which then sells that power on the open market.
Scodellaro cites the book “A River Captured,” by Eileen Pearkes, which explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and its impact on the ecosystems, indigenous peoples, contemporary culture, provincial politics and recent history of southeastern British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the treaty, and what’s at stake in the ongoing negotiations.
“Anyone who reads this book would agree with it,” Scodellaro said.
Meanwhile, negotiations and discussions as to the renewal of the Columbia Treaty are taking place, with public meetings in communities all around the region, Scodellero said.
“There is little to no attention being paid to these meetings that are going on all around us,” Scodellaro said. “The deal could be signed, and very few people would know about it.”