We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s

By Paul W. Hirt

Water Without Borders? Canada, the United States, and Shared Waters

By Emma S. Norman, Alice Cohen, and Karen Bakker, editors

The Columbia River Treaty Revisited: Transboundary River Governance in the Face of Uncertainty

By Barbara Cosens, editor

Review By Meg Stanley

May 21, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 214-17

These three books are bound together by their examination of water as a managed trans-boundary resource. The first is a narrative history in monograph form. The other two are meaty collections of essays that address history and contemporary policy issues.

Paul Hirt’s The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s is a chronological history of electrical power utility development in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia from the late nineteenth to late twentieth centuries. In Water without Borders: Canada, the United States, and Shared Waters, editors Emma Norman, Alice Cohen, and Karen Bakker present twelve essays on the Canada-United States Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The essays are divided into two parts: “Issues, Approaches, and Challenges,” and “Flashpoints, Conflicts, and Co-operation,” which are bookended with an introduction and conclusion. The third volume, The Columbia River Treaty Revisited: Transboundary River Governance in the Face of Uncertainty, edited by Barbara Cosens, is focused on the past and future of the Columbia River Treaty. Its twenty-one chapters explore four themes: “The 1964 Treaty and Changing Voices Since 1964,” “Changes Informed by Science,” “Rethinking the Columbia River Treaty,” and “Governing Transboundary Resources in the Face of Uncertainty.” This volume also includes an introduction and a copy of the Treaty for ready-reference. All three books are indexed and well documented.

British Columbians will be especially interested in these books because the future of the Columbia River Treaty is currently being reviewed by the relevant authorities on both sides of the border. When it was drafted, the treaty made provision for flood control and power generation benefits; it came into force in 1964 following Canada-US and then British Columbia-Canada negotiations. Under the Treaty, in 2014 the parties can give ten years’ notice to terminate it, and 2014 is the first opportunity to revisit the treaty since its signing. So far, British Columbia has indicated a desire to work within the context of the existing treaty to modernize management of the river. In the United States, regional consultations have produced a recommendation to the State Department to modernize the treaty, but the State Department has not yet announced how it wants to proceed. If the treaty is cancelled and re-negotiation is not successful, then the Boundary Waters Treaty (1909) will — with some exceptions – once again govern future management of the river. Regardless of what happens, British Columbia, which has responsibility for administration of the Treaty on the Canadian side, is required to provide flood control for the life of its facilities on the river.

In a field previously dominated by narrower and often institutionally or river-based studies, Hirt’s The Wired Northwest provides a detailed and nuanced history of power systems in the continental northwest, and in the process provides insights into how, within a capitalist/democratic context, a blended public-private power system has evolved. This is neither a declentionist nor a triumphalist narrative; those looking for uncritical affirmation of a particular perspective will not find it here. Readers familiar with H.V. Nelles The Politics of Development (1974) or Matthew Evenden’s Fish vs Power (2004) will find Hirt’s approach familiar. While the Treaty is not Hirt’s focus, he provides a framework for understanding it and its place in the history of the regional power system.

Hirt very effectively builds on an expanding environmental history literature, showing us how the institutions that built Richard White’s “Organic Machine” were created in the northwest. One word that Hirt is not afraid of is “progress,” and in his conclusion he addresses the changing meaning of progress within the context of the development of the northwest’s power systems. In this way he points to the effect of changing values on how the system’s “success” is judged.

The current discussion around the future of the Columbia River Treaty tends to focus on changes to environmental values. There is less discussion of change, or lack of change, in questions of finance. In this context, one of the more thought provoking insights Hirt offers is that widespread support for power system development in the northwest fell apart in the 1970s and 1980s not only because of rising environmental awareness, but also as a consequence of dissatisfaction at increasing rates and declining profits. In Hirt’s narrative, these factors and others contributed to the reexamination and restructuring of the system. Will the Treaty’s restructuring likewise be informed by seemingly contradictory forces? In the end, what Hirt offers are insights into how an immensely complex system has evolved and changed — sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

One of Hirt’s stated ambitions is to write a regional history that includes British Columbia as well as the US Pacific Northwest. The idea is admirable and offers tremendous potential for extending such a transnational analytical reach to questions related to the impact of differing governance structures and economies within the broad frame of the two neighbouring democratic/capitalist states. As with any ambitious project, this one is not perfectly executed; there are factual errors and omissions, for example, Hirt (350) lists Revelstoke incorrectly as a Treaty Dam. Moreover, Hirt’s Canadian analysis relies too heavily on a limited range of published sources. Apart from his broadly applicable conceptual insights, Hirt’s achievement in The Wired Northwest for the Canadian reader is in his detailed synthesis and careful analysis of power utility developments south of the border, a narrative that is often weakly understood in Canada. One can only hope that future writing about Canadian power systems, especially British Columbia’s, will benefit from the ready access to this literature Hirt has furnished.

For Hirt, the past is the prologue: for the essay contributors in Cosens (Columbia River Treaty Revisited) and Norman (Water Without Borders?) for the most part the past is important background that is deployed with varying nuance. Cosens’ collection contains more historically focused essays than Norman’s. In a well-written introduction, Cosens lays out the contours of the theme of “uncertainty” in the context of the Treaty. The question lying at the heart of Cosens’ essays is how to define and achieve efficiency and equity on the river in the face of changing values, legal circumstances, and scientific knowledge. In more accessible language, this means how to include environment, salmon, Aboriginal rights, climate change, power needs, and local communities in an international agreement. For the most part the focus is on the Columbia Basin, but the essays in the section on governance look inward as well as outward for models. Some authors argue that the Treaty is a model agreement that has delivered remarkable returns to the region (variously defined); others disagree. John Shurt’s lengthy analysis of the future of the Treaty is an especially good summary of the questions explored in the essays and of the diversity of perspectives likely to animate discussions regarding the Treaty on both sides of the border. Anyone interested in the Treaty and the future of the Columbia River should read it.

In the final collection of essays, Water without Borders? editors Norman, Cohen, and Bakker cast a wider net than Hirt or Cosens to explore the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States. Their focus is on exploring “new forms of water governance that are not constrained by geopolitical boundaries” (15) and documenting the demise of “old models” (11) that are inappropriately scaled and do not adequately address important contemporary issues. There is an undeniable idealism (and hence appeal) to the editors’ concluding argument in favour of a paradigm shift “that departs from the fragmented policies generated by geopolitical boundaries to strategic, integrated shared water governance models.” (256).

The tension between the idealism and reality, as described in the various essays, is part of what is interesting about this collection, but also part of what makes Water without Borders? a bit frustrating. As the case studies and the essays document, and as the editors acknowledge in the conclusion, reality is always messier and more complex than the application of ideals. And, in the end, what is really compelling in the case studies are the diverse ways that cross-border water management has evolved both within the boundaries of the existing Treaty as well as outside of it. For those interested in the future of the Columbia River Treaty, the essays on the efforts of the International Joint Commission to re-invent itself as an expert body that integrates local knowledge much more systematically into its work is especially stimulating. Likewise, the failures at Devils Lake, where the Treaty has not been invoked, illustrate how local interests can be limiting rather than empowering. One of the more engaging aspects of this book, that sets it apart from the other two, is the approach to cross-border content. Instead of leaving individual Americans and Canadians to understand the cross-border perspective and history as best they can, or to focus exclusively on a particular point of view or story (as with a number of the essays presented by Cosens), the editors asked experts from both sides of the border to contribute articles on “flashpoints.” The result is a nuanced presentation of perspectives from both sides.

These books illustrate what a fascinating and dynamic place the past and present of trans-border water management is. The “old” treaties offer up possibilities as well as problems. Whether they are antiquities to be cherished and carefully rehabilitated, or junk to be cast aside in favour of new tools, is a question for the present and the future.

The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s
Paul W. Hirt
Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2012. 461 pp. $49.95 cloth

Water Without Borders? Canada, the United States, and Shared Waters
Emma S. Norman, Alice Cohen, and Karen Bakker, editors
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 275 pp. $32.95 paper

The Columbia River Treaty Revisited: Transboundary River Governance in the Face of Uncertainty
Barbara Cosens, editor
Corvallis, Oregon: University of Oregon Press, 2012. 453 pp. $29.95