Political boundaries are drawn without consideration of river basin boundaries. The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database shows that 263 surface water resources cross international boundaries. These water resources serve 40% of the global population (Wolf et. al. 1999). Over the next decade, several contributing factors could trigger rapid change and social and economic instability in these international watersheds, placing greater demands on competing water interests. These contributing factors include climate change, continued regional population growth, a threatened and deteriorating ecosystem, demand for nonfossil fuel energy, and deteriorating infrastructure. These factors challenge traditional approaches to governance of transboundary water resources: approaches that rely on the certainty that historic data concerning water supply, demand and ecosystem health can be used to predict the future.
The first University of Idaho College of Law Natural Resources and Environmental Symposium focused on the issues of transboundary water governance in the face of uncertainty. To ground discussion in reality, the natural laboratory of the Columbia Basin, shared by the United States and Canada, served as the focal point for discussion. Approximately thirty researchers representing multiple disciplines and familiar with a variety of international water basins, gathered in the Pacific Northwest to share their knowledge as they collectively applied it to the Columbia Basin.
Future predictions indicate that the United States and Canada water demands in the Columbia Basin will increasingly exceed water availability (General Service Foundation, 2005). These water demands include those of agriculture, municipalities, industry, hydro-power generation, fish habitat and fish passage, and recreational uses. The gap between supply and demand is fueled by the fact that current approaches to water resources management do not adequately address the inherent challenges posed by the complex water demands of the region. Failure to address management will continue to degrade a basin's integrity, cause social harm, impact the economy of the region (Everard, 2003) and, ultimately, could result in unsustainability of the water resources in the Columbia River Basin.
A pivotal factor in this effort will be the potential for notice of the ten-year countdown to termination of the U.S.-Canada Columbia Treaty in 2014. Although notice from either country is by no means inevitable, the fact that certain flood control provisions automatically end in 2024 make some type of action likely. This provides a unique opportunity to comprehensively address the concerns of the basin. Many of these concerns were not on the table in the original treaty in 1964. Under the auspices of the 2024 timeline, we have a mechanism, and an existing framework, along with a built-in timetable to help drive the process.
Thus, the Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance, a collaboration among representatives of the University of Idaho, Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of Montana, and University of British Columbia, formed to develop a research program to inform, guide and shape decision making, and even influence policy in decisions concerning the Columbia River Treaty. The broader interest served will be a greater understanding of how international river basins may respond to growing uncertainty in the future supply, demand and health of their water resource. The first University of Idaho College of Law Natural Resource and Environment Symposium, subtitled: The Columbia Basin Treaty Symposium, was the initial step in developing a research program.