Conflict over water is often predicted as inevitable between Canada and the United States. Citing the obvious disparity between Canadian and American military and economic strength, academic and popular observers alike argue that the United States will simply do whatever it wants with waterways in Canada as climate change and growing urban water needs threaten American sources. But Canadian-American water conflicts are nothing new, nor do they necessarily follow such a pessimistic storyline, as my research into the Canadian-American Skagit River controversy shows.
The Skagit River originates in the Cascade Mountains in southwestern British Columbia, 150 kilometres east of Vancouver, flows south into Washington State, and eventually empties into Puget Sound at Mt. Vernon. Because of its precipitous drop of over 2,000 feet in a little over 200 kilometers, the Skagit has made an ideal location for dams that supply a large portion of Seattle’s electricity. The largest of these is the Ross Dam, which, at the northern tip of its reservoir, floods about 500 acres of British Columbia.
In 1967, Seattle’s public utility, Seattle City Light, negotiated an agreement with British Columbia to raise the Ross Dam by 125 feet, which would have flooded an additional 6,000 acres in the province. Environmental activists and recreationists in Vancouver and Seattle joined forces and vigorously protested raising the dam. They were joined by mining and forestry interests in British Columbia; Upper Skagit, Sauk-Siuattle, and Swinomish First Nations in Washington; environmental groups from across North America, such as the Sierra Club, Earth First, and the Audubon Society; and influential Canadian and American politicians, including Pierre Trudeau, B.C. Premier Dave Barrett, and Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman. Activists attracted thousands of people to numerous demonstrations and hearings for the dam and elicited extensive regional and national media attention in Canada and the United States. The issue was finally settled with the 1984 Skagit River Treaty, in which B.C. agreed to provide Seattle with a combination of cash and wholesale electricity (which, ironically, required raising the Seven Mile Dam on B.C.’s Pend d’Oreille River) in order to reverse the agreement to store water for Seattle in British Columbia.
Beyond being an example of a “happy ending” to a Canadian-American water conflict, the Skagit has larger implications for the study of international relations and environmental history. International conflicts over waterways are never simple stories of one nation’s interest versus another’s; rather, they change over time and involve multiple actors, interests, and scales, from the local to the global. Focusing on the environment thus changes how the history of Canadian-American relations should be portrayed, where the emphasis has traditionally been on federal government actors and security and trade issues. In the Skagit’s case, because of the multitude of stakeholders along the river, non-state actors, such as utility company employees, scientists, environmental activists, and First Nations groups, were heavily involved as well, making the controversy more than just a matter of Canadian versus American interests.
The Skagit also demonstrates that ideas about nature, just like the Skagit River, have both transcended the Canadian-American border and have been influenced by nationalism on either side. This is important, as the histories of the environmental movement in the United States and Canada have largely been told independent of each other. This largely forgotten but influential moment in the history environmentalism shows that the two movements were not separate. Canadians and Americans often worked together in common cause, at least in the Pacific Northwest, where the flow of ideas and people between Vancouver and Seattle was constant, just as it continues to be today.
Philip Van Huizen is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of British Columbia