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Negotiations expected to resume on Columbia River treaty

The Trump Administration is preparing to restart negotiations on a new Columbia River Treaty, and the stakes are high for Idaho’s Upper Snake River irrigators.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on October 4, 2017 6:57AM

Last changed on October 4, 2017 10:57AM

BOISE — The Trump Administration has vowed to pressure Canada to renegotiate a flood-control treaty with potentially drastic ramifications for Upper Snake River water users, according to an attorney representing Idaho’s Committee of Nine.

Jerry Rigby, legal counsel for the committee, which represents storage holders in Idaho’s Upper Snake reservoirs, explained the U.S. and Canada implemented the Columbia River Treaty in 1964 to control flooding in Portland and Vancouver.

The U.S. agreed to pay Canada to build an Upper Columbia reservoir system for added flood capacity, to be used in conjunction with eight U.S. reservoirs — including Brownlee, Dworshak, Libby, Hungry Horse, Grand Coulee and other federal projects in the Columbia River Basin.

In 2024, the Canadian flood-control rights the U.S. received for its investment will expire, and Canada will be entitled to payment on a case-by-case basis for providing flood control “as called upon.” The Canadians have argued the U.S. should be required to exhaust all options to free its own space for flood control — possibly including Upper Snake reservoirs — before seeking their help. U.S. officials maintain the “as called upon” language refers only to the eight reservoirs specifically mentioned in the treaty.

Rigby noted the Upper Snake reservoirs, which aren’t named under the treaty, hold water for a single irrigation season.

“If we had to reduce those (Upper Snake reservoir levels) and water didn’t come, and we had to go a year with those reservoirs almost empty, it would be devastating to Idaho,” Rigby said.

In mid-September, Rigby and several other officials representing Idaho water users met with Trump Administration leaders in Washington, D.C. Treaty negotiations have been stalled since 2013, but Rigby said the Trump Administration has chosen a woman who will soon be publicly named as the chief negotiator for the talks. Trump officials told Rigby they plan to use other treaties the Canadians would like to revisit as leverage to get them to the table.

Jim Yost, one of two Idaho members on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council — formed in 1980 to aid in providing economical power while protecting fish and wildlife — hopes the new negotiator will quickly schedule a visit to meet with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and make her positions formally known.

Since the treaty was enacted, Yost said, there have only been a couple of times when U.S. infrastructure would have been insufficient to accommodate flood control, and a few more years “on the bubble.” Yost, who served on a committee that recommended treaty renegotiation goals to the U.S. Department of State in 2013, believes it would take far too long for water in Upper Snake reservoirs to reach the Portland area to provide any practical flood-control management.

Yost considers talk of Upper Snake flood-control requirements to merely be a “negotiating ploy by Canada to threaten the U.S.” into paying more money under the renegotiated treaty.

Rigby said Idaho irrigators support reworking a power agreement under the treaty that the U.S. believes overcharges Bonneville Power rates payers by up to $3 million per year. The original treaty awarded Canada compensation for extra revenue BPA enjoys when releases from Canadian reservoirs enhance flows through downstream BPA turbines during the peak power season. The U.S. asserts payment rates were based on growth projections that never came to fruition.

Administration officials are also sympathetic with Idaho’s position on the proposed inclusion of “ecosystem” considerations in the treaty, regarding minimum flows for endangered fish, Rigby said. The Obama Administration, certain Oregon and Washington lawmakers and tribal officials supported adding ecosystem language. Idaho leaders argue the Nez Perce Agreement, the Clean Water Act and other unrelated safeguards already adequately cover wildlife and habitat.


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