Editor’s  note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years  ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was  the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in  Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.

Renegotiation of the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty, 51 years after it took effect, will begin soon. I think it is the least-known major conservation decision before the Northwest-and before our headwater partner in the Columbia Basin, British Columbia.

Two facts tell why it’s a big deal. Many years of human-induced hot and erratic water have begun for everyone in the Columbia-Snake Basin. 15% of that basin is Canadian as measured in acreage, but 35-50% is Canadian as measured in water.

Panhandle Idaho knows better than southern Idaho how much of our watershed and its water originate in the Canadian Rockies. But we all tend to overlook how our engineered rivers now make water flow upstream as well as down-in the form of money, kilowatts, upstream effects of downstream flood regimes, no or fewer salmon, and transactions in water volumes, timings, and uses. We know the Snake River flows into the Columbia, but forget how powerfully the Columbia flows into the Snake. Climate change is adding a new example: the upstream march of hot water and its harsh effects.

Lasting care for Columbia Basin waters and people beset by climate change will not happen unless both nations and people do it in sync. The outdated Columbia River Treaty prevents that, by making hydropower and flood control the dominant purposes of our nations’ joint Columbia stewardship, and by giving dam agencies total control of Treaty operations. There is no Treaty standing or vote for the health of the rivers and streams, on which all uses depend and whose care will dominate our next 50 years. River health should be made a third Treaty purpose, with equal voice and vote in its operations.

Alongside river health is a second urgency: remedying river injustice.

Developing our rivers for power, flood control, and irrigation ran roughshod, and still does, over homelands, foods, health, livelihoods and sovereignty of native people in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho. Total exclusion of Tribes and First Nations from the Columbia River Treaty, even as they bore the greatest costs of its dams, is exhibit one. But all our big dams, including Idaho Power’s, were built on and still do injustice to native people.

Northwest people have benefited for 75 years from "cheap hydro." It has never existed. A 75-year partition of true costs from power bills has existed, and still does, made possible initially by force of government and then largely lost to public sight. It has become easy not to notice our cheap power is subsidized by expensive injustice to others.

Tribes and First Nations seek two main changes to the Treaty: recognize their sovereign standing in its governance, and add "ecosystem function" as a third equal purpose with hydro and flood management. Our country’s answer should be immediate yes. President Obama could give U.S. Tribes standing in U.S. Treaty governance right now. Putting river health in the Treaty needs both countries’ approval.

This just answer is also the best answer for Northwest people generally and the health of our rivers, and will set good footing for basin-wide common cause to get through climate change. And it will set a better standard than now exists for justice at the Hells Canyon dams and others.

On May 12, 2014, a Spokane conference titled One River, Ethics Matter put faces and stories to the vast damage from Treaty dams in the upper Columbia, to native people, close-to-the-river people and ecosystems in both countries. View conference highlights.

A second conference, in Portland on Oct 24, will focus on how the Treaty delivers flood control for Portland at the cost of permanent flooding and damage to headwater habitats and homelands. A third, in Boise next spring, will focus on damage to upper Snake and other Idaho Tribes from both the Treaty and Hells Canyon dams. (I am on its planning committee.)

42 religious and Tribal/First Nation leaders from British Columbia and the Northwest have recently written President Obama and Prime Minister Harper, to ask that the Columbia River Treaty be modernized to do justice to Indian Tribes, First Nations, and our basin’s waters. Boise Rabbi Daniel Fink is one of the 42. There will be more.

The administration is now quietly developing the U.S. negotiating position, and both governments are in prenegotiation dance. The start date of talks can’t be predicted, but it’s coming. When it comes, a just and forward-looking Treaty will result if native people, people of faith, people of conservation, and people of law unite across the border to insist on it.