US and Canada Begin Negotiations on a Modernized Columbia River Treaty
by Raelene Gold, LWVWA - Representative for CRT
The United States and Canada started negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) this May in Washington DC. The 1964 treaty is an acclaimed model for transboundary water management and has been highly successful in meeting its goals of maximizing hydropower generation and preventing downriver flooding. Certain provisions of the treaty are set to expire in 2024, necessitating current negotiations.
The Columbia River has its origin in the Rocky Mountains of the Province of British Columbia and its basin includes the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Oregon. The l930’s saw a period of dam building, including the l938 Grand Coulee Dam, that blocked salmon from British Columbia and northern Idaho. There are now 14 federal dams on the main stem of the river, as well as three storage dams in British Columbia and one in Libby, Montana. Besides power generation and flood control, the treaty also benefits irrigation and municipal water supply, water levels for navigation on the lower river, and recreation opportunities.
The treaty had a period of review between 2012 and 2014, with public hearings in the northwest resulting in the 2014 Northwest Regional Recommendation for the CRT, that included a recommendation to add “ecosystem function” as a third treaty goal.
The League has had an interest in the Columbia River since 1959 when northwest Leagues published their seminal, "The Great River of the West.” The Leagues of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon formed a Columbia River Task Force (1980) to reach a regional position (see Program in Action 2017-2019 page 30) and continue to maintain their involvement. The group submitted comments during the Review process contributing to the 2014 Northwest Regional Recommendation for the CRT. The LWVWA is represented in the NGO Caucus for the CRT and joined 31 other signatories to an August 30, 2018 letter to the US Chief Negotiator.
At a public meeting on July 25th in Spokane, Chief U.S. Negotiator Jill Smail and Canadian Negotiator Sylvain Fabi began with diplomatic congeniality, stressing their joint priorities for flood control, reliable and affordable power, ecosystem improvement and flexible and adaptable management. Though the treaty negotiators rejected the request of Columbia River First Nations and tribes to be included on the negotiating team, they now are agreeing to look into the reintroduction of salmon into the upper Columbia River Basin, which has been blocked by the Grand Coulee dam. They also both spoke to the need for treaty flexibility and adaptive management, especially in the face of climate change and changing energy markets.
The meeting allowed those in southeastern British Columbia and Lincoln County, Montana to raise the negative aspects of the four Treaty dams that removed farm, forest, andwetland acreage, replacing it with reservoirs that drain into dusty mudflats. The area has suffered substantial economic damage without the benefiting from the CRT. British Columbia has been given some compensation. Montana is now also requesting compensation.
There is recognition that including a third treaty goal of “ecosystem function” to benefit salmon and wildlife will result in trade-offs, impacting hydropower production and flood control. An important issue for the NW Power (utilities) Group has been the “Canadian Entitlement,” what they pay Canada for water storage, which they say is now too high.
A public meeting held yesterday in Portland addressed issues including the 2024 end to assured Canadian storage, and preventing lower Columbia flooding. You can read U.S. Chief Negotiator Jill Smail's remarks from the meeting here. Treaty negotiations will continue in Portland on October 17-18.