Transboundary Water Governance & Climate Change Adaptation

Duncan Dam, one of four Columbia River Treaty dams (image credit:British Columbia Ministry of Mines Energy and Petroleum Resources, 2010)

Environmental uncertainty associated with climate change will challenge the capacity of some water treaties to act as resilient frameworks for shared water governance, particularly those that were signed in a different era and involve economically significant benefits such as hydropower production. Recent decades marked a paradigm shift in Canada and the USA that was characterized by new environmental legislation, stronger aboriginal laws pertaining to land and water rights, and increased public expectations about inclusion in environmental decision-making processes. To maintain relevance in the face of these changes, water treaties face pressures to adapt, pressures that are further complicated by the issue climate change.
An adaptation policy window is opening soon for one such treaty. The Canada-USA Columbia River Treaty was implemented in 1964 and primarily addresses hydropower and flood control in the transboundary portions of the Columbia River Basin. The Treaty is scheduled for possible re-negotiation after 2024 since either country can terminate or re-negotiate the agreement at that time with 10 years advance notice. Because the Treaty was signed in a different era, upcoming ‘pre-negotiation’ leading to 2014 will be quite different from the original negotiations. Several interest groups will expect increased involvement and new environmental and aboriginal laws will conjoin with the issue of climate change to create a more complex decision-making arena.
To support upcoming decisions it is necessary to understand whether the Columbia River Treaty is flexible enough to promote a governance institution that will absorb each of these new pressures, or if changes to the agreement are required for greater resilience. Under the supervision of Dr. Murray Rutherford, Cedar Morton, co-chair of the Water Research Group, is conducting his PhD research using an interdisciplinary approach that combines policy sciences, environmental economics, fisheries biology, hydro-system models and climate models to study transboundary water governance in the Columbia River Basin. Specifically, Cedar is using the Columbia River Treaty case study to examine how species conservation can be more explicitly included in transboundary water agreements, which traditionally fail to consider such values.