International watershed basins shared by two or more states cover nearly half the land surface of the earth and often present complex, interconnected management challenges. The Columbia River basin has long been considered a model case of international watershed management. The fiftieth anniversary of the Canada–United States treaty that governs the basin occurred in 2014, which was also the first year either country could give notice to terminate and request to renegotiate. Stakeholders and interested parties with values shut out of the original negotiations have long advocated for fundamental changes in how the river is managed and operated. Meanwhile, those interests who are the primary beneficiaries of the current system want to limit any changes in terms, operations, and distribution of benefits. This article explores the politics of potential treaty renegotiation and focuses on the institutional permanence of the existing system, demands for ecosystem functions in future system operations, and whether transformational change or incremental adaption is the politically likely outcome.

Introduction

International watershed basins shared by two or more states cover nearly half the land surface of the earth (Bernauer, 2002). For state and subnational actors these shared basins, given multiple jurisdictions and competing priorities, can present a wide range of complex, interconnected management challenges (Akamani & Wilson, 2011). The Columbia River basin, shared between Canada and the United States, has long been considered a model of international watershed management.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Columbia River Treaty, the agreement between the two countries to transform the Columbia basin, was marked in 2014. It was also the first year either country could give ten years advance notice to terminate and request to renegotiate the treaty. The possibility of termination and renegotiation has for a decade loomed over the future of the hydropower system in the basin. Stakeholders and interested parties with values shut out of the original negotiations – tribal governments and first nations, ecosystem functions such as salmon recovery – have long advocated for fundamental changes in how the system operates. Meanwhile the primary beneficiaries of the established system, including power production and flood control, want to limit changes in terms and operations. This article explores the political context of potential treaty renegotiation, including the institutional permanence of the existing system, demands to include ecosystem functions as a new goal of system operations, and whether transformational change or incremental adaption is the politically likely outcome.

The Columbia River Treaty

The Columbia River is one of the world's great ecological treasures. Its tremendous volume begins to gather high in the Canadian Rockies, from where it falls steeply and quickly on the journey to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia basin covers some 673,000 km2 and includes almost all of the state of Idaho, most of Oregon and Washington, and portions of Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and the province of British Columbia. The river flows approximately 1,900 km through a diverse ecology where average yearly rainfall varies from 15 to 280 cm. The river, with an annual average volume of approximately 20 billion cubic meters (7,500 cubic meters per second) and an average fall of 61 cm per 1.6 km (three times that of the Mississippi), was long considered a near-perfect ecological system for hydropower development. With ten major tributaries, including the Snake and Kootenai rivers, the Columbia basin has approximately 400 dams of various types. These include 14 large-scale facilities on the main stem of the river, with additional large dams on the Snake, Kootenai, Clearwater, Clark Fork, and Spokane rivers. These facilities, with 21 million kWh of generating capacity, produce 75% of the energy in the Pacific Northwest, provide water to two of the United States' largest irrigated agriculture systems, and afford protection across the region to episodic flooding.

The origin of the Columbia River Treaty was a 1944 reference by Canada and the USA to the International Joint Commission, created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, to study whether greater use could be made of the waters of the Columbia basin through joint development and management (Krutilla, 1967; Hyde, 2010). The Commission was asked to study a number of issues related to basin development, including reclamation of wetlands and conservation of fish and wildlife resources (Paisley et al., 2015). The primary focus, however, was on potential hydropower development and the wide variation in seasonal flow, which made large-scale flooding across the basin a continuous threat. In 1894 and 1948 catastrophic flooding along the course of the river, but most dramatically in the lower reaches, inflicted widespread death and destruction. In 1948 Vanport, Oregon, then the second-largest city in the state, was largely destroyed by the flooding (Barton & Ketchum, 2012). By the early 1950s there was tremendous public demand in the USA for a system capable of handling the variation in short- and long-term flow, and in 1959 the Commission was asked to limit the scope of its study to only hydropower development and flood control (Hyde, 2010; Paisley et al., 2015). As the best place to control seasonal flow variation is in the upper reaches of a river system, it was obvious that an international agreement was necessary to address the reality that all costs (monetary, ecological, social) would be in Canada and most benefits (flood control, increased power generation) would be in the USA (Shurts, 2012).

After several years of study and negotiations, the two countries agreed on the terms of cooperative development, and the Columbia River Treaty was signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964 (Krutilla, 1967; Swainson, 1979). The treaty required Canada (i.e. British Columbia) to construct and operate three storage dams (Duncan, Keenleyside, and Mica) in the upper basin for flood control and to optimize seasonal flows for hydropower production (Swainson, 1979; Hyde, 2010; Barton & Ketchum, 2012). In return, the USA agreed to compensate British Columbia in advance for half the downstream flood control benefits provided by the treaty dams. In addition, the USA agreed to provide compensation (the Canadian Entitlement) for half the downstream hydroelectric benefits from upstream storage (Krutilla, 1967; Swainson, 1979). The first 30 years of the Entitlement were sold in advance to a group of US power utilities for US$254 million as part of a set of agreements negotiated shortly after the treaty was signed (Krutilla, 1967). The USA, in turn, was granted permission to build Libby Dam in Montana, whose reservoir, Lake Koocanusa, straddles the international border (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1.

Columbia River basin and major dams (Water Without Borders, 2012).

Fig. 1.

Columbia River basin and major dams (Water Without Borders, 2012).

Rather than establishing a fixed allocation of water, which is the primary purpose of most international watershed management agreements, a defining feature of the Columbia River Treaty is equitably shared benefits to multiple stakeholders from cooperative management – flood control, enhanced hydropower capacity, and financial compensation (Swainson, 1979; Barton & Ketchum, 2012; McCaffrey et al., 2012). British Columbia, by selling in advance the Entitlement, received funds to build the treaty dams, allowing it the financial resources to build the more-valued Peace River dams in the north-east of the province (Mitchell, 1983). Canada finalized a long-standing commitment to the USA to cooperatively manage the river basin, and US stakeholders secured flood control and increased hydropower production. It is this combination of benefits and how they are allocated that is now under challenge from a more complex set of stakeholders who see potential renegotiation of the treaty as an opportunity to create a different mix of benefits for a wider range of claimants.

New stakeholders: new management challenges

There is little disagreement on the benefits of the treaty for flood control and hydropower production (McKinney et al., 2010; British Columbia, 2013; US Entity, 2013). The upstream storage capacity created under the treaty, along with other major infrastructure projects on major tributaries in both countries, has largely eliminated the potential for catastrophic flooding in the lower reaches of the basin. Moreover, inexpensive electricity, the lowest per kWh in the USA, has been a cornerstone of the regional economy. From mining, to manufacturing, to modern high-energy consumption server farms, the Pacific Northwest has long benefited from low-cost electricity. These benefits, however, have come with high ecological and social costs and a number of stakeholders now contend ‘that things have changed’ since the ‘win-win’ of 1964 and that it is important to modernize the treaty (McKinney et al., 2010; US Entity, 2013).

Those interests pressing for change generally identify three primary problems with the treaty – ecosystem health, harm to tribal interests, and a lack of public participation in system management. In the Columbia basin ecosystem health can include a wide range of issues, though it generally starts, and sometimes ends, with salmon recovery. Salmon are the cultural icon of the region and representative of a perceived link between residents and the natural environment (Fallows, 2000). Native American tribes in the USA and First Nations in Canada honor salmon as central to cultural traditions, an important element of their economies, and a primary food source. The emblematic significance of salmon is often evident in non-native culture in the region, where salmon and their continued presence are indicators of ecosystem health and a symbol of a way of life that emphasizes a somewhat mythical appreciation and awareness (and use) of nature.

By the late 1800s, when mechanized harvesting and processing were introduced, there was already growing concern over the rapid decline of salmon runs (Lichatowich, 1999). An effort to sustain populations and compensate for habitat loss through aggressive hatchery programs was successful in maintaining salmon numbers, although greatly diminished, through the first-half of the 20th century. Yet continued over-harvesting, large-scale hydropower development, and habitat loss combined to produce a steady, precipitous decline in populations across the region. Beginning in the early 1980s an aggressive, proactive effort was launched in the USA to stabilize salmon numbers through rationalized and regionalized oversight of protection and recovery. This has included, at an estimated overall cost of US$15 billion (Columbia River Treaty Power Group, 2015), changing the timing and volume of river flows, construction of fish ladders and other dam bypass infrastructure, and transportation of smolts downstream via truck or barge. More recently, recovery efforts have incorporated actions, large and small, to restore salmon habitat through a variety of restoration projects across the Columbia basin. In 2008, for example, the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from US government facilities, committed US$1 billion in additional funding to tribal and state governments to further expand restoration actions.

Native peoples in the Pacific Northwest have endured a disproportionate burden of the costs of hydropower development with little of the large-scale benefits (Harden, 1996; Wilson, 2002). Although at the forefront of contemporary efforts to restore salmon populations, and in many instances they are the leading actors, the concerns and priorities (e.g. trust obligations and treaty requirements) of native peoples were ignored in the treaty and in the hydropower development that followed (Harden, 1996; Cosens, 2012; Paisley et al., 2015).

The third problem ‘needing to be fixed’ is the perceived lack of public participation in management and oversight of the treaty system. A product of its times, the treaty was the result of high-level, government to government negotiations with little of the public involvement expected today. Pre-dating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Endangered Species Act, it was designed for flood control and hydropower, and the entities created to oversee implementation and operations have focused on those two outputs. Broad oversight is exercised by the American (US Army Corp of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration) and Canadian (British Columbia Hydro) entities. Excluded from the negotiations were other potential stakeholders who now contend that the broader, more complex interests in the region require a more inclusive, open, and transparent decision-making process (US Entity, 2013).

Treaty future: possible outcomes

In broad terms there are three possible options for the future of the Columbia River Treaty – terminate, maintain, or revise (Bankes & Cosens, 2012). Inherent in all three are foundational questions of purpose and the interconnected calculation of costs and potential redistribution of benefits. Outright termination of the treaty with the potential loss of current predictable benefits from mandated, coordinated operation is in the interest of neither side, and thus highly unlikely. Maintaining the treaty largely unchanged is the position of British Columbia. In 2013, recognizing the challenge of climate change and other regional-scale ecological considerations, the province, following an extensive public-involvement process, issued a formal decision to ‘continue the Columbia River Treaty and seek improvements within the existing treaty framework’ (British Columbia, 2013). The US position, in contrast, is a revised, ‘modernized’ treaty that addresses a number of challenges and is in the best interests of the United States (US Entity, 2013). A goal of the USA is to include a new third primary output, ecosystem functions, with coordinated management and the health of the regional ecosystem a shared benefit and cost (US Entity, 2013). In June 2015 the US State Department, following the recommendation of the US Entity, agreed to include ecosystem functions in the draft US negotiation position (Columbia Basin Bulletin, 2015).

Native peoples on both sides of the border contend that they have never been adequately compensated for the losses incurred under the treaty (McKinney et al., 2010). Whether loss of access to traditional resources or damage to cultural heritage, they have long challenged the current distribution of costs and benefits. Moreover, they have advocated strongly to include their defined interests under various treaties with the US government in Columbia River Treaty system priorities, and want a formal decision-making role in negotiations to revise the treaty (McKinney et al., 2010; Cosens, 2012; Paisley et al., 2015).

An expectation of increased participation in negotiations on the treaty's future is an objective of a wide range of local and regional stakeholders. In addition, there are claims for a permanent role in future management of the system (McKinney et al., 2010). Active public participation is representative of decision-making by government agencies in the basin, especially in the USA, that manage salmon recovery, recreational use, hydropower production, and water allocation. Whether a by-product of NEPA public involvement requirements or direct legislative mandates of Congress and state and provincial legislatures, many stakeholder groups have experience and expectations of active engagement and contend that this should apply to treaty system operations.

Finally, private and public utilities in the USA want a revised treaty to address what they consider outdated and overgenerous financial compensation. British Columbia, as noted above, receives yearly compensation for one-half of the downstream benefits of coordinated system operations that increase hydropower production at facilities in the USA. The first 30 years were sold in advance, while for the last 20 years British Columbia has received compensation in electricity (US$250–300 million per year) equal to the downstream benefits (Hyde, 2010; Hume & Hunter, 2013; Learn, 2013). The US position is that treaty-mandated compensation is now substantially more than one-half of downstream benefits from coordinated system operations and should instead be equivalent to the difference between coordinated and non-coordinated operations (US Entity, 2013). The estimated value of British Columbia's share of downstream benefits under this new calculation would be approximately US$25 million per year – a 90% reduction in compensation (Columbia River Treaty Power Group, 2015). Not surprisingly, provincial officials have a different view of the problem and solution: ‘The level of benefits to the Province, which is solely in the form of the Canadian Entitlement, does not account for the full range of benefits in the United States or the impacts to British Columbia’ (British Columbia, 2013).

Political possibilities for change

A primary demand of stakeholders excluded from direct benefits or meaningful involvement in current system management is to increase the number of participants in negotiations on a revised treaty and future operations. Will, however, increased participation lead to a different distribution of cost and benefits, and can the system actually produce a different mix of benefits? Designed and built to provide flood control and hydropower production, the treaty projects, and the other facilities in the region, are a complex, interlocked set of purpose-built infrastructure. Despite demands for new outcomes, it may not be possible for this infrastructure, even with more innovative system operations, to produce more than marginal, incremental new benefits (Wilson, 2015).

For example, the construction of Grand Coulee dam (opened in 1942) closed off the entire Canadian portion of the Columbia basin to salmon. That salmon could not get past Grand Coulee and the devastating effects on the population were accepted costs of power production development central to larger efforts to transform the political economy of the region (Harden, 1996). In treaty negotiations the USA wants salmon recovery included, while British Columbia does not. US actors, as part of evolving salmon-recovery efforts and in response to tribal efforts to include restoration above Grand Coulee in treaty negotiations, have proposed studying restoring fish passage. To date British Columbia has shown little interest in this proposal or in recasting system operations for salmon recovery – essentially using Canadian water and storage on a permanent basis to aid fish passage as a separate objective from hydropower production and flood control (British Columbia, 2013). ‘Salmon migration in the Columbia river,’ notes the province's energy minister, ‘ended 26 years before the treaty was ratified. It was eliminated by the Grand Coulee dam in 1938 and our position is that's an important issue but it's not part of the Columbia River Treaty discussion’ (The Economist, 2014).

Further, a change in operations to produce a different mix of outcomes will redistribute the costs and benefits produced by the treaty system. How these will be redistributed is the principal question in any potential renegotiation of terms. All parties have had years to develop alternative outcomes or strategies to protect or challenge the status quo. Canadian actors have long portrayed the future of the treaty as a struggle between British Columbia and powerful American stakeholders (Hume & Hunter, 2013). On the US side, public utilities in the basin contend that the requirements to spill water to aid fish passage reduces power generation potential, and thus the value of treaty storage is diminished and the Canadian Entitlement overvalued. This argument, however, overlooks fish-protection efforts in the US portion of the basin that are a collaborative, shared cost imposed by decisions made there, not in British Columbia.

Is there, finally, willingness by regional stakeholders to run the system in ways that may produce suboptimal flood and hydropower benefits in pursuit of a more ecologically and socially balanced set of outcomes? The interrelated operations at the heart of the Columbia River Treaty give the impression of a single, basin-wide system divided by only an international border (Vogel, 2007). The reality is that this system, like many interconnected and managed international watersheds, was a product of a number of specific moments in time grounded in different pieces of infrastructure that embody ‘different historical imperatives and political calculations imposed on the river system’ (Wilson, 2015: p. 111). These interconnected, historically grounded institutions and political calculations may therefore limit the claims and aspirations of new stakeholders seeking new benefits from an entrenched system.

Stakeholders in the USA have four objectives as they aim for extensive modernization of the treaty through new agreements – ecological functions as an operating priority, inclusion of Native American priorities, expanding public participation, and reducing the amount of compensation for downstream benefits. Although the preference ordering varies depending on problem and solution (e.g. utilities are primarily interested in reducing the Canadian Entitlement and oppose including ecosystem functions in potential negotiations), there is general agreement that discussions on the treaty's future provide an opportunity for change (Columbia Basin Bulletin, 2015). Moreover, these stakeholders, not surprisingly, have generally viewed the treaty primarily in its international context – an agreement between the United States and Canada. This understanding fails to capture the practicalities of Canadian federalism and the political compromises between British Columbia and the Canadian government included in treaty ratification. Oversight of natural resources in Canada has long been contentious and responsibility is largely with provincial governments (Cairns, 1992). During the internal Canadian negotiations over the treaty British Columbia became the principal actor, with control of the Canadian portion of the basin (Swainson, 1979; Mitchell, 1983). Upon ratification, Canada formally transferred its Columbia River Treaty obligations and rights to the province and, as a result, ‘British Columbia is really the United States' treaty partner’ (Shurts, 2012: p. 195).

The preference of British Columbia to maintain the treaty does leave open the possibility for some limited, mutually beneficial changes. There have been several one-time, temporary adjustments to operational planning that have provided benefits for both sides. Coordinated water releases, for example, have been used for flow augmentation for fish passage and to maximize benefits for power generation during drought conditions (Shurts, 2012). A more extensive renegotiation of the treaty, however, seems decidedly counter to British Columbia's interests. There is little the USA can offer better than the current treaty terms.

In 1995, after long discussions with local constituencies most affected by the construction of treaty facilities, British Columbia created the Columbia Basin Trust to collaboratively manage a Can$295 million endowment to promote economic activity in affected areas and support social and economic benefits for residents of the basin (Columbia Basin Trust, 2015). The trust has been successful in addressing in part many of the long-standing public concerns, and B. C. Hydro conducted public consultation on water use planning that led to changes in operating policy for its treaty projects (Hyde, 2010). The province has moved, therefore, to ‘deal with’ problems created by the treaty system and this greatly reduces the potential benefits of basin-wide international solutions linked to the treaty. The US government, concurrently, has promoted similar, though more limited, solutions by expanding the role of tribal governments in basin governance and providing funding for salmon restoration. In short, many of the problems associated with the treaty have been addressed at least partially and this limits the possible efficacy of any changes to the treaty.

Given the long-stated US priority to reduce compensation for coordinated operations, there seems little incentive for British Columbia to agree with American stakeholders and jointly terminate the treaty. This confronts US policymakers with a problematic choice. Terminate unilaterally and seek new terms meeting US goals without obvious means or incentives to achieve a new agreement – an option that would be ‘difficult and risky’ and greatly increase complexity and uncertainty in system operations (Hyde, 2010). British Columbia, relieved of treaty obligations, could operate its facilities for its priorities. The USA, although relieved of the Canadian Entitlement costs, would need to develop alternative flood storage and hydropower generation capacity to offset potential losses to what is currently available from coordinated operations under terms of the treaty.

A second alternative for the USA would be to negotiate a new agreement that increases benefits to British Columbia, primarily economic, as the primary incentive for operational changes to promote ecological health and salmon recovery, and share these costs across American utilities and ratepayers.

[I]f the United States wants this kind of change in treaty project purposes and operations, it will need to devise an operation that has significant environmental or economic benefits or both for British Columbia (the right spring and summer flow operations perhaps that benefits spawning below the dams and maximizes summer surplus sale revenue) or else be prepared to pay handsomely for an operation that provides those benefits in the United States’ (Shurts, 2012: p. 238).

British Columbia officials, recognizing the value of the treaty and good relations in the region, have expressed an interest in ‘working together’, while acknowledging their strategic advantage because ‘no deal is terrible for the United States . . . it will be an environmental and economic mess south of the border’ (Hume & Hunter, 2013).

Finally, the US position, despite aspirational goals, is limited by hydrologic and physical realities – only 15% of the basin is in British Columbia, but it produces 35% of the flow. The current system, designed for efficiency and equity, works as intended to control and optimize these realities. Although there has been speculation among some American stakeholders that greater flood risk could be managed as an acceptable trade-off to promote ecological health goals (Shurts, 2012), this possibility, according to US officials, is not an acceptable outcome: ‘At the end of the day we are not going to increase flood risk’ (Learn, 2013). On this point there may be the basis for a revised treaty limited primarily to maintaining the current, specific, legally binding flood-control obligations of British Columbia, which expire in 2024 and become a much less well-defined obligation to help control downstream flows during potential flood events. The priority to manage the system to limit flood risk and the British Columbia preference to maintain current treaty terms, albeit with the possibility for minor changes, mean that stakeholders seeking substantial, perhaps transformational, changes will be greatly disadvantaged in a political landscape inherently favorable to the status quo.

Conclusion

Kingdon, in his classic contribution, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, drew attention to the idea of ‘policy windows’, institutionalized and predictable, that can open and provide opportunity for advocates to promote solutions to problems (Kingdon, 1995). This was the heart of an intuitively engaging explanation that answered why some ideas are acted upon (and others not) and what are the future prospects for change. These windows, Kingdon concluded, do not stay open long, as ideas come but also pass (1995). In many instances, they pass because crises prove fleeting and public attention shifts to other more pressing problems.

In the Columbia basin, despite wide interest among engaged stakeholders, the lack of crisis means that broad public engagement on the treaty's future has been limited and demands for change muted. This reduces greatly the potential for a policy window to open wide enough for fundamental change. Moreover, the inherent tendency of large-scale infrastructure-based socio-ecological systems toward the status quo suggests that the most likely outcome of any Columbia River Treaty renegotiations will be small, focused changes, largely compensation oriented, that benefit specific stakeholders yet leave the system largely unchanged.

From this politically likely outcome, and ongoing discussions about the future of the Columbia River Treaty, it is possible to draw some generalizable lessons that inform our broader, collective understanding of transboundary water management law and policy. First, there is long-term value in limiting uncertainty by maintaining stability in operations and continuity in the distribution and deliverability of benefits – especially given potential climate change effects that may stress institutional capacity and reduce the ability of existing infrastructure to produce expected outputs. Second, as likely in the Columbia basin, entrenched interests who benefit from the established distribution of costs and benefits, and have been given preference in existing treaties and operating agreements, will prove difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge politically. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Columbia River Treaty highlights the durability of collaborative watershed management based on the equitable distribution of downstream benefits and grounded in mutually beneficial institutional arrangements.

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