Irrigators seek seat at Columbia River Treaty table

Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Pacific Northwest irrigators are concerned that they were left out of the process to determine whether to renegotiate an updated Columbia River Treaty with Canada.

SPOKANE — Pacific Northwest irrigators should have a seat at the table as the U.S. nears its final recommendation on a Columbia River treaty with Canada, the manager of an Eastern Washington hydropower company says.

The Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, which make up the U.S. entity in the treaty review, recently released a draft  recommendation that the United States decide by mid-2014 to proceed with renegotiating the treaty with Canada.

The treaty, designed to manage flood control and power generation on the river, expires in 2024. The nations can terminate the treaty with 10 years of advance notice.

The present power benefits of the treaty are not equitable and Canada receives substantially greater value from coordinated hydropower operations than the United States, according to the document.

Tim Culbertson, secretary-manager for the Grand Coulee Project Hydroelectric Authority in Ephrata, Wash., said he was concerned that the word “irrigation” doesn’t appear anywhere in the latest draft. Instead, the term “water supply” is used.

Farmers who irrigate their land within the Columbia Basin Project represent more than 680,000 acres and $1.2 billion in agricultural production, Culbertson said. They also have a pre-existing water right for another 3 million acre-feet of water to fully develop the project.

“We are pretty sure ‘water supply’ is the word that’s the preference of the sovereign review team because there will be competitive demands for those incremental withdrawals,” Culbertson said.

Culbertson said irrigators want a seat at the table to represent their interests for the water right.

“We firmly believe there was a disservice done that the sovereign review process didn’t include a broader stakeholder interest,” he said.

Stephen Oliver, U.S. entity coordinator for Bonneville Power Administration, said there has been ongoing dialogue with irrigators in Idaho and Eastern Washington.

The only reason “water supply” was used was to cover all the collective interests of the region, he said.

“We understand that is very much driven by irrigation needs and interests,” he said.

Oliver said the treaty will not make a difference in the amount of water moving through the river system annually. The timing might shift, he said, but there aren’t “massive differences” in flow regimes in different times or seasons.

Other discussions are scheduled throughout the Pacific Northwest, culminating in a meeting Oct. 16 in Portland that can be attended in person or watched via webinar.

The public comment period for the current draft statement ends Oct. 25. The U.S. entity will then work on a final draft document, which will be made public. The entity expects to make its recommendation to the U.S. Department of State by mid-December.

A U.S. interagency policy committee will then decide whether to move forward with renegotiating the treaty. If they decide to continue, they will begin the renegotiation process, said Mike Hansen, spokesman for Bonneville Power Administration.



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