Religious leaders call on USA and Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty based on Ethical Principles

“One River, Ethics matter”:  One week before release of Pope Francis’ Environmental Encyclical, momentum builds for stewardship, justice through Treaty changes

Today 16 religious leaders sent a second request to President Obama and Prime Minister Harper to begin negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty based on ethical principles of stewardship and justice.   The religious leaders’ letter comes one week in advance of the release of Pope Francis’s Encyclical on climate change and the deteriorating global environment, providing a North American example of a river severely damaged by past decisions and unfolding climate change.  In 2014 the first request letter was sent by different religious leaders and also indigenous leaders representing 15 Columbia Basin tribes in the United States and 17 First Nations in Canada.

“The Columbia River is the historic lifeblood of the tribes who have lived in its watershed from time immemorial.  And rivers are the lifeblood of the planet.  As a matter of justice, and as a matter of survival, I join with others across the watershed in urging the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty,” said The Rev. Jessica Crist, Bishop of the Montana Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls was an incredibly rich salmon fishing spot and gathering place for the Tribes since time immemorial, and is flooded by Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee dam. (Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture photo)

Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls was an incredibly rich salmon fishing spot and gathering place for the Tribes since time immemorial, and is flooded by Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee dam. (Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture photo)

Religious and indigenous leaders are asking both nations to establish an international model of resolving transboundary water conflicts by applying the Declaration on Ethics and Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.  The Declaration sets forth eight principles for modernizing the Columbia River Treaty that include respecting indigenous rights, protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems with abundant fish and wildlife populations, and providing fish passage to all historical locations.

In May, the U.S. State Department informed Congressional leaders that negotiating the Treaty was a national priority, and that the U.S. would seek to add Ecosystem Function as one of the primary purposes of the Treaty.  The State Department decision is based on Regional Recommendations issued in December 2013 by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers.  All four Northwest states, 15 Columbia Basin tribes, fishermen and environmentalists support that recommendation.  Religious leaders have joined in support of Tribes and First Nations.  A foundation for this growing support by the faith community is the Columbia River Pastoral Letter released in 2001 by the twelve Roman Catholic bishops of the international watershed, and based on region-wide listening sessions.

“The Columbia Basin tribes welcome and appreciate the religious leaders’ support for the two countries to modernize the Columbia River Treaty on a foundation of social and environmental justice to achieve shared goals,” said Leotis McCormack a Chaplain and member of the Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committee.  “The Regional Recommendation is a historic document that provides a vision for a modernized Treaty that reflects today’s values of ecosystem-based function and restored fish passage.”

With glaciers melting in the headwaters and water temperatures rising in the lower Columbia River, climate change is already threatening the river and fisheries that depend on the river.  Adding ecosystem function as a third treaty purpose co-equal with hydropower and flood risk management would encourage both Canada and the United States to co-manage the Columbia River as a single river, restore salmon to areas now blocked by dams, and reconnect the river with floodplains.

“Based on the Recommendation, we have decided to include flood risk mitigation, ecosystem-based function, and hydropower generation interests in the draft U.S. negotiating position. We hope to approach Canada soon to being discussions on modernization of the Treaty.” -- U.S. State Department

“Based on the Recommendation, we have decided to include flood risk mitigation, ecosystem-based function, and hydropower generation interests in the draft U.S. negotiating position. We hope to approach Canada soon to being discussions on modernization of the Treaty.” — U.S. State Department

Additional quotes from religious, indigenous leaders:

D.R. Michel, Upper Columbia United Tribes’ Executive Director.  “We are salmon people.  Salmon meant nearly everything to our people, provided by the Creator.  The U.S. government with Canada’s approval built Grand Coulee dam.  When the gates closed and the waters rose, 10,000 people gathered at Kettle Falls for the Ceremony of Tears.  They built more dams and flooded more valleys. They took the river and the salmon from us.  Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty holds the promise of righting this historic wrong by bringing home the salmon and managing the river as a river rather than as a machine.  While this is vital to the Tribes and First Nations – it is important to all people in the Columbia Basin in both countries. In this time of climate change, we must protect and restore the river.”

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  “Noted the The ELCA social statement, ‘Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice,’ describes humanity’s part in creation this way: ‘According to Genesis 2:15, our role within creation is to serve and keep God’s garden, the earth.’ This earth, all of creation and that beautiful part of it known as the Columbia River are a gift entrusted to us by God. And this gift is entrusted not just to particular countries or a particular generation, but to all countries and to all of humanity. When we seek to make faithful decisions about the tending of the Columbia River or any natural resource, we must remember that it is not, nor can it ever be, just about us or just about now.”

The Rev. Paul Benz, co-director of Faith Action Network.  “As a statewide interfaith advocacy organization partnering for the Common Good of all God’s creatures, the Faith Action Network stands with Columbia River Basin tribes and First Nations in their struggle for the health of the river, their people and the ecosystem.  Their life, history, and spirit are tied to the river.  We look forward to treaty negotiations between the US and Canada that result in the protection and wise use of this good gift of God for all the people of the basin.”  (FAN is formerly Washington Council of Churches and the Lutheran Public Policy Office.)