Matthew Weaver/Capital Press
MOSES LAKE, Wash. — The director of Washington state’s agriculture department says he is optimistic the U.S. and Canada will be able to successfully renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty.
“We’re pretty close on a lot of things,” said Derek Sandison, director of the state Department of Agriculture and former director of the state Department of Ecology’s Office of the Columbia River. He spoke Nov. 2 during the Columbia Basin Development League annual meeting.
The 60-year-old agreement is designed to coordinate flood management and optimize hydropower generation by Columbia River dams.
Under the treaty, the U.S. paid Canada $64 million to construct three dams in British Columbia in exchange for 8.94 million acre-feet of assured flood storage.
In 2024, assured storage convert to “called-upon” and “effective use” storage. The U.S. would first have to make effective use of its reservoirs for flood control before calling on Canada to store snowmelt, drawing down the dams to make as much flood volume as possible, Sandison said.
“That’s an arrangement we’re not particularly fond of,” he said. “You’re hammering U.S. reservoirs in the hopes that your March forecast is right and there will be water late (in the) irrigation season to make up what you’ve pushed out to the ocean.”
As part of the Canadian entitlement, Canada receives 50 percent of the power generated downstream. Sandison said the treaty uses an outdated formula that doesn’t factor in modifications made in 1993 to address the Endangered Species Act and protected fish.
U.S. and Canadian negotiators agree the Canadian entitlement is too high, Sandison said.
“They don’t want any more than they’re entitled to,” he said. “That’s what they said, I take them at face value.”
The regional recommendation on the U.S. side called for a recalculation of the power entitlement to reflect the actual value, re-establish some level of assured flood control and fully consider the ecosystem.
The U.S. State Department named Jill Smail the new treaty negotiator in October.
British Columbia recommended modernizing the treaty, but Canada has not yet formally engaged, Sandison said. Signs indicate they’re prepared to engage soon, he said.
He said the treaty should be considered apart from “background noise,” such as President Donald Trump’s discussions about withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico; possible tariffs on soft wood and Bombardier aircraft; and changes to Canadian milk pricing.
Such discussions have created tension between the U.S. and Canada, contributing to Canada’s slow movement on the treaty, Sandison said.
“Separate (the treaty) from the turbulence that’s created by the international trade discussions that are going on,” he said. “I think, in doing so, we get there.”
Sandison said he expects movement on the treaty by the end of the year.
The treaty and its operations have been a model for the world, Sandison said.
“There’s a commitment on both sides of the border to continue having that well-run, highly coordinated operation of river systems,” he said. “So I’m optimistic.”