IWA Publishing

The Columbia River Treaty: the politics and possibilities for change


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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.

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