Transboundary River Governance in the Face of Uncertainty: Resilience Theory and the Columbia River Treaty

30 University of Utah Journal of Land Resources, and Environmental Law 229

37 Pages Posted: 13 Oct 2011 Last revised: 16 Jan 2016

See all articles by Barbara A. Cosens

Barbara A. Cosens

University of Idaho - College of Law

Date Written: October 12, 2011


Political boundaries are drawn without consideration of river basin boundaries, as illustrated by the fact that 263 surface water resources cross international boundaries. 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 and a greater need to cooperate across jurisdictional boundaries. These contributing factors include: climate change; continued population growth; a threatened and deteriorating ecosystem; demand for non-fossil fuel energy; and aging infrastructure. Uncertainty in these factors challenges traditional approaches to governance of transboundary water resources. These approaches also rely on the certainty that historic data concerning water supply, demand, values, and ecosystem health can be used to predict the future. In addition, these traditional approaches protect sovereignty through clear rules for dividing resources rather than flexibility to adapt to change and foster system resilience.

Resilience as applied to ecological systems addresses the ability of the system to continue to provide, or return to a state in which it will provide, a full range of ecosystem services in the face of change. When applied to the coupled human-ecological system (i.e. a social-ecological system), it provides an umbrella theory for integration of concepts of natural resource management with ecological response to achieve sustainability. Achieving the goal of sustainability in a river basin is complicated by uncertainty in the drivers of change and the fragmentation of jurisdictions. Research to translate resilience theory into specific administrative actions may provide a road map to improving our ability to foster sustainability in our response to change in transboundary river basins.

This research is an outgrowth of the first University of Idaho College of Law Natural Resources and Environment Symposium (“the Symposium”) focused on the issue of transboundary water governance in the face of uncertainty. The Symposium used the natural laboratory of the Columbia Basin, shared by the United States and Canada, as a focal point for discussion. Joint operation of the river for the purposes of hydropower production and flood control is governed by a 1964 treaty (“the Treaty”). Certain flood control provisions of the Treaty expire in 2024, and either country must provide ten years’ notice should it seek to terminate the Treaty. Thus efforts are underway in the basin to predict changes and to understand whether those changes warrant Treaty modification. The degree of uncertainty surrounding the drivers of change complicates efforts to predict and address changes.

With the University of Idaho College of Law and Waters of the West Program as the lead organizer, the Symposium was developed in collaboration with researchers from Oregon State University, University of Montana, University of British Columbia, and Washington State University. Representatives of the first four of these universities and the University of Washington have joined to form the Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance (“the Consortium”).

This paper proceeds as follows: Part I introduces and reviews some of the relevant work on the concept of resilience in governance; Part II uses information from the symposium to describe the Columbia River and the 1964 Columbia River Treaty; Part III discusses changes since 1964 and the anticipated drivers of change; and Part IV concludes by applying the concept of resilience to the Columbia River Basin and laying the foundation for the next step in the research being pursued at the University of Idaho. This work includes developing models of administrative law that are integrated with the Consortium’s research around the concept of resilience. These models could be applied in the Columbia Basin and other transboundary and multi-jurisdictional efforts at river governance.

Keywords: resilience, water law, adaptive management, transboundary water law, Columbia River

JEL Classification: Q25, Q28

Suggested Citation

Cosens, Barbara A., Transboundary River Governance in the Face of Uncertainty: Resilience Theory and the Columbia River Treaty (October 12, 2011). 30 University of Utah Journal of Land Resources, and Environmental Law 229. Available at SSRN:

Barbara A. Cosens (Contact Author)

University of Idaho - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 442321
Moscow, ID 83844-2321
United States
208 885-6298 (Phone)
208 885-2859 (Fax)


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