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Columbia treaty talks 'hottest' NW issue

Published on February 11, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on March 11, 2011 12:38PM

Major dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers

Major dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers

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Countries prepare for negotiations on power, flood control


Capital Press

All eyes in Pacific Northwest agriculture will soon turn to the Columbia River Treaty.

The 50-year-old hydropower and flood-control pact between the U.S. and Canada is up for discussion for the first time in 2014.

Either nation can terminate the treaty after that, but must give 10 years advance notice, said Matt Rea, Columbia River Treaty review program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"2014 is looming very large and there's some really critical decisions that we want to make," Rea said. "If it is in the best interest of the United States to terminate, we want to make that decision as soon as possible."

The treaty was signed as a means of averting major floods along the Columbia such as the one in 1894 that wiped out whole communities. The last catastrophic flood was in 1948 and leveled Vanport, near Portland. At that time Vanport had a population of 18,000 and was the second-largest city in Oregon.

An International Joint Commission had been created in 1944 to study the possibility of developing a U.S.-Canada system for managing the Columbia. It completed its report in 1959 and the treaty was signed in 1961.

The 1,214-mile river empties more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in North or South America, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and is second only to the Mississippi-Missouri river system in total water volume. Including the Snake River and other tributaries, the Columbia drains 219,000 square miles spanning seven states and western Canada.

Under the treaty, Canada must provide storage for 15.5 million acre-feet of water, including 8.95 million acre-feet of storage specifically aimed at preventing flooding downstream in Washington and Oregon. In addition, the U.S. can call on Canada to use its other reservoirs to avert floods that otherwise could not be controlled by U.S. dams.

Canada agreed to build the Mica, Keenleyside and Duncan dams. They were completed in 1976. In return, Canada received half of the added electrical capacity from dams in the U.S., worth $250 million to $350 million per year. The electricity was sold at first to help finance the Canadian dams but is now delivered to Canada.

The U.S. also paid Canada $64 million for flood control.

Another dam, on the Kootenai River in Montana, was also built. Its reservoir extends 40 miles into Canada.

"We got a really good deal at that time, and the Canadians know it," Rea said. "I don't think we'll get that deal again."

Before deciding whether to continue the treaty, the province of British Columbia and Canada's federal government recognize the need to consult with key stakeholders, Jake Jacobs, British Columbia Ministry of Energy spokesman, said.

Jacobs said the main issues will be the size and value of Canadian entitlement to downstream power and the implications of any flood control provision changes.

If the treaty continues, British Columbia will continue to operate the dams for optimum power generation downstream in the U.S., and Canadian entitlement payments will continue, Rea said.

If the treaty is terminated, British Columbia is released from its requirement to coordinate river flows with the U.S. and Canada's electricity entitlement ceases.

The U.S. could still call on Canada to help control floods but it would have to repay any of Canada's economic losses such as lower electricity generation.

Aaron Wolf, chairman of the geosciences department at Oregon State University, called the treaty one of the "hottest issues" the Northwest faces. He specializes in water resources policy and conflict resolution.

"Everything's up in the air -- that's what makes this all really interesting," he said. "There could be no impact or it could be a major impact."

The original treaty was good when it was signed in the 1960s, Wolf said. It was designed to deal with hydropower and flood control. But the treaty did not take into account tribal rights, regional environmental issues such as fish populations and public participation.

Those issues will need to be incorporated into a new management structure, Wolf said.

Because a new treaty would be between the U.S. and Canada, any changes must be made by the administration and the Department of State and ratified by the Senate.

The heads of the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implement the treaty in the U.S. while British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority implements it in Canada. A spokesman for BC Hydro declined to comment on the treaty.

Joint studies completed in August serve as a starting point, Rea said. The phase one study included options for continuing or terminating the treaty.

There is no preferred option as yet, Rea said. "It's way too early to be making that kind of call."

The potential impacts on irrigation, navigation, recreation and wildlife all need to be factored into any recommendation, he said.

On the Canadian side, Jacobs agreed it is too early to know which option the provincial and federal governments will choose.

However, he did say the Canadians would like to build on the solid working relationships developed since the treaty began, he said.

Regardless of whether the treaty continues, after 2024, it calls for a shift in the flood control system. The U.S. will still have rights to flood control storage in Canada, but the guaranteed coordinated operating plan changes to an on-call system if the U.S. cannot avoid flooding on its own. Rea said the corps is still working to understand the implications of the change.

The flood control change could affect farmers if there are shifts in the storage in both Canadian and U.S. reservoirs.

For example, if Grand Coulee dam flow needs to be adjusted to avert downstream flooding, it could impact all other water uses, including irrigation.

"We don't have a real good handle at this time on what the magnitude of that potential impact might be, and how frequently it might occur," Rea said.

This month, Rea said, the corps will contact irrigation districts and other agricultural groups to gather leaders' opinions on how to proceed.

At the same time, British Columbia and Canada will begin a treaty review and establish a framework for consultations with regional stakeholders and tribes, Jacobs said.

The province does not currently have a target date for its recommendation, Jacobs said.

Wolf, the OSU professor, advised farmers to keep an eye on the process and be in touch with their organizations. Every state has a representative on the corps' planning council, he said.

Universities in each of the seven states and British Columbia have also put together a consortium to support a regional dialogue, Wolf said. Meetings have been held in Oregon and Idaho, and the next will be in British Columbia.

"The idea is to facilitate a regional dialogue that doesn't have the weight of formal negotiations," he said.

Wolf believes it is important for people to talk and listen to one another and think creatively about how to balance agriculture, environmental protection, hydropower and flood control.

"Those are complex conversations, and I think there's the option for some real creativity in the region," he said.


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