Columbia River Treaty negotiations

A U.S. flag flies over the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington state. The U.S. State Department is negotiating to modernize the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

Farmers are closely watching the Trump administration as it negotiates new trade treaties with Asian nations such as China and Japan. But another treaty negotiation closer to home could have an equally far-reaching impact on farmers in the Pacific Northwest.

The Columbia River Treaty talks between the U.S. and Canada will profoundly impact how the linchpin of the region’s economy is managed. Any major changes in the agreement will touch nearly every farmer in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.

Any changes will likely affect the availability and price of electricity and water. If negotiations are allowed to expand into other aspects of managing the Columbia and Snake rivers, all bets are off. Everything from fish passage to river transportation could be impacted.

The original treaty, signed in 1961, was negotiated in the wake of catastrophic floods that destroyed the second largest city in Oregon. Floodwaters wiped out Vanport in 1948, killing 15 people and displacing 18,000.

The treaty had one main goal: preventing future flood disasters. That was done by building four treaty dams — the Arrow, Duncan and Mica dams in Canada and the Libby Dam in Montana.

Under the treaty, Canada prevents flooding of the Columbia by draining the reservoirs behind those dams to make room for snowmelt in the spring. To compensate Canada for the lost revenue from electricity generation, Canada receives payments from U.S. utilities.

Besides flood management, how that compensation is priced and calculated is the other main part of negotiations over the new treaty.

Those negotiations stem from a provision in the original treaty that said in 2024 the system now used to reduce the risk of floods will change. Instead of being the first lines of defense against flooding, the Canadian dams will only be called on the hold back rising waters of the Columbia once the U.S. has done all it can to control them with its dams.

In other words, U.S. dam reservoirs may have to be drawn down in the early spring in anticipation of snow runoff. That could impact the amount of water available later in the year for everything from hydro power to irrigation and salmon passage.

That means the U.S. and Canada must come to terms over how best to prevent flooding without turning management of the entire river system on its ear.

In addition, the U.S. Entity — diplomat-speak for the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of State — came up with a regional recommendation that was developed after years of consultation with farmers, utilities, cities, Native American tribes and others.

In a 2013 letter to the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority and Global Affairs Canada, the U.S. entity included “ecosystem-based function” as a primary purpose of the treaty, along with flood control and power compensation.

At least one member of the U.S. Senate, which must approve any new treaty, has stated that he doesn’t want ecosystem function to be part of the deal.

Sen. Jim Risch, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he will pull the plug on the treaty if ecosystem function is included. The Idaho Republican told the Lewiston Tribune that he sees too much room for mischief threatening the lifeblood of his state’s economy.

He is correct. Ecological concerns such as salmon passage are already being litigated in court. Including them in the treaty negotiations would only make the likelihood of an agreement that much more remote.

Delaying the treaty beyond 2024 would be a disaster for flood management, electricity generation — and salmon recovery.

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