Slide background

Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Time for the U.S. and Canada to move ahead on talks about modernizing the Columbia River Treaty. Get started on negotiations.

columbia.r-largeMay 19, 2016

By Seattle Times editorial board

CANADIAN Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is new to the job with a busy agenda. High on his list should be appointment of a chief negotiator to formally launch talks on the Columbia River Treaty.

Like much of the treaty signed in September 1964, that imperative begs definition. Separate regional U.S. and Canadian teams have spent years drafting recommendations to update an agreement grounded in hydropower generation and flood-risk management.

The Canadian review team was composed and shaped by British Columbia’s provincial interests, apart from the federal government in Ottawa.

The U.S. recommendations were drafted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration in a review process that included four states, 11 federal agencies and 15 Native American tribes and other stakeholders.

In 2015, the U.S. State Department appointed Brian Doherty as chief U.S. negotiator for the trans-border talks. Its counterpart, Global Affairs Canada, has yet to name a negotiator.

Time is slipping by. The treaty has no formal expiration date. But after 2024, either side can cancel the agreement with 10 years’ notice. That made September 2014 significant.

What does go away in 2024 is a formal, predictable flood-risk management regime that has protected the U.S. for half a century.

Modernizing the treaty means updating language on flood-risk mitigation and hydropower generation, and adding ecosystem-based functions.”

Unless it is officially extended, ensured flood control would be replaced with a “called-upon” system that involves U.S. reservoirs and a spooky ad hoc, real-time assessment of flood danger and requests for Canadian help.

From the U.S. perspective, modernizing the treaty means updating language on flood-risk mitigation and hydropower generation, and adding ecosystem-based functions. The original document did not directly address fisheries.

Climate-change realities and considerations must be part of a revised Columbia River management plan.

A key sticking point for the U.S. side will be redefinition of the Canadian Entitlement, a claim for half of the power produced at U.S. dams with the storage benefit of three Canadian dams, already paid for by the U.S.

Northwest utilities are adamant the existing formulation is outdated and does not represent the actual value attributable to the streamflow created by the Canadian dams. Nor does the Canadian Entitlement reflect the subsequent expense of U.S. environmental regulations imposed on the hydrosystem and borne by ratepayers.

Expect Canada to respond that the value to the U.S. of irrigation, navigation and recreation benefits are not accounted for in the entitlement payment.

Northwest utilities argue the original formulations were based on assumptions that did not play out, and they want to end the existing payment structure.

One option raised is a two-part payment to Canada: one for the value of the flood-control protection provided. The U.S. knows about the massive disaster-relief bills it has paid for floods and storms elsewhere. Let Uncle Sam make a vastly smaller insurance payment to Canada for flood-risk mitigation here. Maintain, and appreciate, a system that works.

Separate and apart would be the power-generation payment. Redo the arithmetic and base the future Canadian Entitlement on revised, relevant numbers.

This past March, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., adroitly used a visit by Prime Minister Trudeau with Secretary of State John Kerry to lobby for fast tracking U.S.-Canadian talks. Trudeau agreed. Cantwell needs to remind him and the U.S. State Department.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

To see full editorial with graphics go here.

Share This