When you stand on the new Glacier Skywalk, just off the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park, you can look down into the depths of the Sunwapta Valley 280 metres beneath your feet and up at the heights of the Continental Divide around you.
Nestled among these peaks is the Columbia Icefield, a massive complex of ice that first formed more than 10,000 years ago. Six kilometres long, almost a kilometre across, and in some places 300 metres thick, it feeds eight major glaciers and three major river systems.
One of these is the Columbia River. This waterway stretches 2,000 kilometres, from its Rocky Mountain headwaters, through eastern B.C. and four U.S. states. It drains a region the size of France, and now encounters 14 dams along its length, including three in this province.
The river is the subject of an international agreement on shared river management. On Sept. 16, 1964 — 50 years ago this Tuesday — Canada and the U.S. ratified and implemented the Columbia River Treaty.
Those three B.C. dams, as well as one over the border, generate power, provide water for irrigation and control flooding on both sides of the border. The dams’ operation forms the heart of the agreement.
In return for caching water to protect downstream states during flood-prone months and releasing water during drier months, B.C. receives about $300 million from the U.S. every year. These annual “entitlements” reflect half the value of U.S. electricity sales made possible by the timely release of water from B.C.’s Columbia reservoirs, and are critical to the B.C. government’s annual budgets.
The Columbia River ties the Columbia Icefield to Victoria, Ottawa and Washington, D.C. It binds the high-country glaciers with their blue shadows to all the people who benefit from the treaty, all those harmed by the treaty and all those now scrutinizing the treaty and determining whether it should continue past 2024, its earliest possible termination date.
If Canada (that is, B.C.) or the U.S. decides to end the treaty, Tuesday is the first opportunity to indicate those intentions. To terminate the treaty, either party must give 10 years’ notice.
A lot can happen in 10 years.
A lot has happened in the past 50 years.
In 1964, people travelling along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park could stop at the most accessible point to the Columbia Icefield to admire the Athabasca Glacier. They could, in fact, get out of their gas-guzzling, wide-bodied, steel-hulled cars and walk just past the end of the parking lot to touch and climb on the glacier’s toe.
Today, anyone who wants to experience the glacier up close must travel five to 10 minutes by tour bus to reach it.
Researchers say that the glacier was last this small 4,000 to 8,000 years ago — when humans were still using stone tools, the first cities were being founded in Mesopotamia and writing was yet to be invented.
A recent U.S. state-of-the-union report on climate change flags the rapid melt of British Columbia’s and Alaska’s glaciers. “Most glaciers in Alaska and British Columbia are shrinking substantially,” the U.S. National Climate Assessment says. “This trend is expected to continue and has implications for hydropower production, ocean circulation patterns, fisheries and global sea-level rise.”
Researchers monitoring glaciers in the Columbia River Basin, the northern Rockies and the Coast Mountains estimate the glaciers might be losing about 22 cubic kilometres of ice, or about 22 billion cubic metres of water, each year.
That’s about one-quarter of the Columbia River’s average annual flow across the Canada-U.S. border.
Glaciers help control winter snowpacks. Losing the storehouses of ice could affect water supply in river drainages throughout the year, leading to more frequent and extreme flooding in wet seasons and more frequent and extreme drought in dry seasons.
This, in turn, would affect agriculture and hydroelectric power generation.
Flooding, drought and power generation — the three core reasons the Columbia River Treaty exists.
Many people will be watching what happens with the treaty after Tuesday.
Many will also be watching what happens among the high mountain peaks on the Alberta-B.C. border in the coming years.