More than 200 people Wednesday night came to a U.S. State Department-hosted town hall meeting in Kalispell meant to inform federal negotiations that could shape the future of an international watershed roughly the size of Texas.
Those negotiations are on updating a landmark water agreement with Canada over how to manage floods, power and ecology in the Upper Columbia River basin. The invitation for input drew legislators, citizens and industry representatives, who advocated for fair treatment and compensation for the construction of Libby Dam completed in 1972.
Canada’s obligations to hold back flood water under the nearly 60-year-old accord – called the Columbia River Treaty – change in 2024. That’s also the first year it could expire, provided a ten-year notice. So Canada and the U.S. are working out measures that could modernize the treaty.
There have already been five rounds of negotiations.
"We wanted to come to northwest Montana to hear from you about your perspectives on the treaty and Libby Dam," says Jill Smail, the U.S. Department of State’s chief negotiator for the agreement. She says four dams were built under the treaty – but only one of those was in the United States, in Libby.
The treaty was passed in 1964, on the heels of widespread, deadly flooding in the northwest and Canada. But construction of the Libby Dam on the Kootenai River required flooding and displacing entire communities.
The resulting reservoir is 90 miles long. If you drained it, it would let loose enough water to cover Glacier National Park an average of nearly six feet deep.
That reservoir is called Lake Koocanusa.
"Koo for Kootenai, can for Canada, USA," says Mike Cuffe, a Republican State Senator from Eureka.
In exchange for regulating flooding in the U.S. by building three dams in Canada, that country was granted half the revenue from power generated downstream. But even though the Libby Dam prevents flooding in parts of British Columbia, no such agreement was ever put into place for Montana.
"Let’s talk about ecosystem justice. Is it fair? Hell no. Hell no it’s not," Cuffe says.
According to 1998 a technical report from Bonneville Power, dam construction disrupted the spawning and migration of fish like the bull trout, westslope cutthroat and sturgeon. It also destroyed habitat of one of the last remaining native bighorn populations in the northwestern part of the state. State and private players have worked to offset many of these effects since the dam was completed.
Cuffe sponsored a joint resolution in the Montana Legislature that asks for the state to be compensated for losses of timber, property tax, minerals, real estate and more that came with the building of the dam. It also demands that the renegotiated treaty abandon an unused provision that allows Canada to divert water from the Kootenai at Canal Flats in British Columbia.
The resolution passed Montana's House and Senate almost unanimously. More than a dozen state legislators offered comment at the town hall, supporting Cuffe’s resolution. Many offered written statements from lawmakers who couldn’t attend.
"I’m totally overwhelmed," Cuff says.
Cuffe’s fought for years to get Montana recognized in the treaty process.
"I dreamed – I dreamed of something like this, but I honestly didn’t know if it would ever happen."
The majority of attendees of the town hall were from Libby and Eureka, and Cuffe thinks that will stand out for the negotiation team.
Cuffe says he’s open to many different compensation scenarios – but he’d be happy with Montana getting 20 or 30 percent of Libby Dam’s production, whether that comes directly from energy or from monetary compensation.
McGregor Rhodes, former secretary of the Libby Rod and Gun Club, has fought the dam for decades.
"Forty-thousand acres of land are gone. All those farms, ranches, logging – gone. Those sturgeon are gone. The dolly varden are gone. All I can say is the Corps lied, the land suffered and the people suffered. And you should do something to make it better."
Josh Letcher, Lincoln County Commissioner, says residents of the area feel bullied, betrayed and lied to. Letcher’s family has lived near the Kootenai River for seven generations.
"Some of these people were uprooted, some moved several miles, some moves hundreds of miles, some were so upset they left the country. You know, Canada receives $250 to $350 million a year. Lincoln County doesn’t receive anything."
Letcher says he wants to see Libby get equal compensation.
"The communities downstream that used to be flooded are no longer flooded because of the water we hold back. While the communities we had have been flooded for 50 years."
Attendees of the State Department meeting also expressed concern about the looming threat of aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels, power prices in the area, and the overall health of the watershed – including the impact of mine waste from Canada.
Lead negotiator Jill Smail said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of ongoing negotiations, including to what extent compensation for Montana might be weighing in.
Dozens of affected tribes in the U.S. and Canada were excluded from the original treaty process. The State Department’s faced criticism for not including tribal representation on the negotiation team, which features representatives of the federal government and the Bonneville Power Administration.
But Smail says the government is continuing to consult with tribes, for whom the watershed has deep significance for both culture and livelihood. This included a meeting with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Wednesday morning.
"We value the Tribes’ expertise and experience and are working to have meaningful engagement throughout the negotiations."
Smail says the negotiations have been frank and honest so far, and give her hope for reaching an agreement that satisfies all parties before treaty conditions change in 2024. The next round of negotiations between the U.S. and Canada will take place April 10 and 11 in Victoria, British Columbia.