BOISE — Idaho water users are spooked by the possibility the Columbia River treaty review process could result in water from the upper Snake River reservoir system being used for basin-wide floor control efforts.
Review teams from the United States and Canada are scrutinizing the treaty, which expires in 2024 and can be terminated with 10 years’ notice.
The U.S. review team — representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration — will submit its draft recommendations in mid-December to the State Department, which will then negotiate with its Canadian counterpart.
Canada’s treaty review team has recommend that all U.S. water storage projects in the Columbia River basin be utilized for system-wide flood control. That would include the storage projects in Idaho’s upper Snake River basin above Brownlee Reservoir that are currently not authorized for that purpose.
Idaho water officials say flood control efforts could require water be released from reservoirs, reducing the amount of water available for irrigation.
“In Idaho, that is a non-starter,” Idaho water attorney Scott Campbell told Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of Canada’s treaty review team, during the Idaho Water Users Association’s annual meeting Nov. 22.
While Idaho may be a small state without major clout, “that doesn’t mean we won’t fight tooth and nail to stop that from happening,” he added.
There is 6 million acre-feet of water in Idaho reservoirs above Brownlee.
James Barton, northwestern division chief for the Army Corps of Engineers, said there is no indication the U.S. would consent to those reservoirs being part of a treaty amendment.
“But nobody I think can guarantee that,” he said.
Power generation and flood control are the primary purposes of the treaty.
Many water users from both countries are concerned that the U.S. recommendations include a provision that calls for adding a third purpose: ecosystem-based functions.
That suggestion made its way into the United States’ recommendations at the insistence of American Indian tribes and environmentalists. It baffled the 200 people who attended the IWUA meeting, where officials from both countries who are involved in the treaty review provided updates on the process.
“I’m not sure what ecosystem-based function means,” said IWUA Executive Director Norm Semanko, who testified on the treaty before a Senate committee Nov. 7.
Semanko told senators, “the treaty should not be used as an independent mechanism to provide for additional environmental regulations or requirements.”
In a letter to the U.S. entity reviewing the treaty, Idaho Republican lawmaker Gayle Batt was more blunt.
“The expansion of the treaty to include ecosystem-based function is unacceptable, vague and a slap in the face to water right holders, rate payers and power producers that have invested billions of dollars in fish and ecosystem restoration,” she wrote.
Idaho water users’ stance on the ecosystem issue is in line with Canada’s.
Eichenberger said a lot of ecosystem improvements have already been accomplished within the broad framework of the treaty and Canada sees no reason to change the structure of the treaty “to make ecosystems a formal consideration because it’s already a consideration.”