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Columbia River treaty raises water user questions


Capital Press

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. -- Farmers and irrigators worry how changes to the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada could impact their water supply.

Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said water supply and irrigation are not getting enough attention during the treaty review.

"It's almost an afterthought," he said. "It should be part of the goals and objectives of the process to make sure we have enough water for water supply, for irrigation, for food security."

Semanko is concerned about differing interpretations by the two countries over the flood control Canada would provide if the treaty expires or is renegotiated.

Semanko said the Canadians believe the U.S. must use all of its reservoirs before Canada provides any flood control after 2024.

That means a reservoir used for irrigation, recreation or local fisheries in Boise or Payette could suddenly be emptied to make room for excess water to avert flooding in Portland, Semanko said.

The U.S. believes all authorized projects, including the Canadian dams, must be used for system flood control. Semanko said his association agrees with that.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration held the first in the latest series of treaty open houses in the Pacific Northwest on April 10.

Officials from the two agencies offered an update on the process the U.S. and Canada are following to determine whether to continue the treaty, which expires in 2024. The nations can decide to terminate the treaty with 10 years of advance notice. In the U.S., the Corps will send its recommendation to the U.S. Department of State this December.

Matt Rea, treaty review program manager for the Corps, said the two countries do differ on their interpretations. Ultimately, the issue may be negotiated between the U.S. and Canada, he said.

Rea said the United States will retain the right to ask Canada for flood control storage after 2024.

"If you terminate the treaty, Canada is free to operate their reservoirs as they see fit for optimization of Canadian benefits, with no consideration for optimization of hydropower downstream," Rea said. "The flip side of that is the United States does not owe Canadian entitlement."

Under the treaty, Canada is entitled to half of the downstream benefits associated with water storage. The U.S. currently pays $250 million-$300 million to Canada in electricity. That represents half of the power generated by the dams along the river.

Terry Buchholz, a consultant for the Corps, said irrigation and navigation are not likely to be impacted if the treaty is terminated or continues.

The U.S. team's study found almost no change for irrigation or navigation from current conditions under any of the decision options, she said.

"The differences were so small that it just had no impact," she said.

The Corps and BPA examined a series of different scenarios, called components. In each scenario, the team researched the overall effect of emphasizing just one aspect of the river system, such as the ecosystem, hydropower or flood risk.

Several scenarios did show a difference in navigation or water supply, but Buchholz said they are unlikely to ever occur in reality. The team will use the information from its research in the next step of the process, Buchholz said.

Removing the entitlement might mean drawing down water in Lake Roosevelt deeper and more often, said Don Dashiell, a Stevens County commissioner and rancher in Hunters, Wash. The lake is one of the flood control reservoirs.

Whether water levels would be dropped low enough to affect water users on the river would have to be considered, said Dale Walker, commissioner for the Grant County Public Utility District.

"You'd have enough complaints from recreation before it would ever affect the irrigation," Walker said.


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