Lake Koocanusa. File photo.

Lake Koocanusa. File photo.

Politicians pitch Koocanusa weir proposal into Columbia River Treaty talks

Proponents say a weir across the Koocanusa reservoir would ensure more consistent water levels

Local politicians are advocating for the inclusion of a weir at Lake Koocanusa into the ongoing Columbia River Treaty negotiations between Canada and the United States, a decades-old water management agreement between the two nations.

Kootenay-Columbia MP Rob Morrison, the region’s Conservative parliamentarian, and Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka, with the provincial BC Liberal Party, jointly spoke in favour of the measure during a recent media availability in Cranbrook.

They argue the weir would provide water level stability in the Koocanusa reservoir, which feeds into the Libby Dam, a hydroelectric power generating facility in Montana, which manages the reservoir levels based on water needs for power generation and downstream environmental values.

Based on volumes from the spring runoff, water levels can fluctuate significantly, which has been the source of angst for locals who have raised concerns about impacts from low water levels to tourism and recreation.

The idea for a weir — a non-power generating dam-like structure — on the Canadian side of the reservoir has been pitched by a local committee that is seeking to build a structure to ensure a more consistent reservoir level.

“I just want to make sure that when it goes to treaty negotiations, which are ongoing right now, that they understand the importance of the weir for Kootenay-Columbia and the people of Koocanusa,” said Morrison.

“I didn’t know about the water levels, but the water levels in the winter time and sometimes in the summer are so low that they don’t even have waterfront property…

“So what we’re really asking for, is for water levels to be at a certain level, so they maintain their waterfront and their recreation that they have there.”

Full pool at the reservoir is elevation 2,459 feet, and the U.S. Army Crops of Engineers — the organization that operates the Libby Dam — reported earlier this year that water levels are expected to peak between 2,448 and 2,452 feet in early August.

“When push comes to shove, the Americans are going to want the water,” said Shypitka, “and so what we offer here…is another bargaining tool or another bargaining chip and put another piece in play, and that’s building a weir to stabilize our water levels here in Kootenay East.”

The Columbia River Treaty is a water management agreement between Canada and the United States that was ratified in 1964. The agreement, which provides flood control management, led to the construction of three dams in British Columbia and one in Montana.

However, the treaty has been criticized for a lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples, as the impacts of creating reservoir systems flooded out entire communities and areas with cultural and ecological values.

Under the treaty terms, the U.S. paid $64 million for flood control benefits and annually pays out a share of power generation benefits to Canada that, depending on market prices, is estimated to be approximately $120 million.

Canada and the United States have been in talks to renegotiate the treaty since 2018, with inclusion from Ktunaxa, Okanagan, and Secwepemc First Nations as official observers, providing input to the Canadian negotiating team.

Both Morrison and Shypitka pitched the weir concept as a means to ensuring stability on the Canadian side of the Koocanusa reservoir.

“Some call it a dam, some call it a weir, it’s a system within a system,” said Shypitka. “We’ve got the Libby Dam, this [weir] would ensure a certain amount of stabilization in our watershed.”

“That’s all we’re asking for, we’re just asking for people to look at it, take note, see it’s validity and whether you argue for or against it — I think it’s a conversation we all should have.”

Last fall, a consultant completed a high-level engineering assessment of a weir on the Canadian side of the Koocanusa reservoir, which studied the impacts of the proposal through two scenarios — maintaining the water level at 2,440 feet year-round or just in the peak summer months.

In both scenarios, the study concluded that maintaining the reservoir at 2,440 year round or in prime recreation season only would increase recreational opportunities on the Canadian side of the lake.

However, if operated at 2,440 feet year round, the weir would negatively impact navigation, hydro electric power generation and flood management on the U.S. side of reservoir — impacts that would largely disappear if the weir is operated at 2,440 in the summer, according to the report.

Additional complications arise when considering the cost of building the weir, which is estimated to run north of $400 million, and include annual operational and maintenance costs. That also raises questions about who pays for the weir and how it fits within the framework of the Columbia River Treaty negotiations.

In May, the province’s Columbia River Treaty team released a summary assessment of the consultant’s report, including public feedback and responses from different experts.

Public feedback criticized the baseline assessment maintaining the water level at 2,440 feet as too low. According to one resident noted in the province’s report, a 20 foot drop in water level can translate to 60-100 feet of exposed shoreline, which can cause challenges when planning for infrastructure.

The Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative outlined a number of concerns relating to ecological impacts resulting from flow changes on the Kootenay River if a weir was built in the Koocanusa reservoir.

Also, Stewart Rood, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Lethbridge, who has a research focus on water management, determined that a large dam exceeding $1 billion would be needed, rather than a weir, which would fragment the lake’s ecosystem and carry consequences for power generation at Libby Dam and downstream.

Additionally, the province noted that the Ktunaxa Nation has not yet been formally engaged in the discussion on the proposed weir.

All told, the province’s conclusion of the high-level engineering report on the weir is that advocating for increased co-ordination with Libby Dam operations in Columbia River Treaty negotiations is the most efficient way to address water level concerns at Lake Koocanusa.

However, that conclusion also noted that other options could be explored should negotiations with the U.S. not produce a favourable outcome.

The Columbia River Treaty negotiations are in the tenth round of talks, with the Canadian delegation responding to a U.S. proposal last June, as well as tabling a proposal of its own.

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