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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Guest columnist Joseph Bogaard urges the U.S. to move forward with negotiations with Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.

By Joseph Bogaard

Special to The Times

Columbia River GorgeIN the next few months, the U.S. Department of State and President Obama will decide whether to start negotiations with Canada to modernize the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between our two nations. On behalf of salmon and those who make their livings from salmon, but also for all Northwest people, we hope the decision is yes. This 50-year-old treaty should be improved for today’s Northwest, and for tomorrow’s.

The 1964 treaty met many needs of its time. Canada built dams and reservoirs in the Columbia headwaters with U.S. assistance. These projects and the treaty framework made possible coordinated cross-border hydroelectric generation, the transmission intertie that sends Northwest power to Southwest markets and coordinated flood management, whose greatest value has been to the Portland area. For these benefits to us, Canada receives compensation in the form of power now valued between $200 million and $300 million annually.

The looming expiration of the treaty’s flood-control agreement in 2024 has spurred both nations to prepare for negotiation. The year 2024 may seem far away, but it’s not.

Right now the Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers are leading efforts to finalize a regional recommendation for the U.S. State Department. In his Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., last week, Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., urged that negotiations to secure a modernized treaty move ahead next year.

Any major change in Columbia flood management would take years to prepare for. And any change in flood management would deeply affect every other use too — including three with great impact to people on both sides of the Cascades: salmon, energy and agriculture.

More urgently, climate change is not waiting for 2024. Columbia Basin snows, flows and temperatures are changing now. This summer, the long reach of the lower Columbia River that includes The Dalles and John Day dams experienced water temperatures of 70 degrees or above for 56 straight days. This was a preview of the coming years, when this year’s highest temperature — 73.2 degrees at John Day Dam on Sept. 11 — will become the new normal. “Normal” will be an increasingly sick river.

Soon the major common imperative our nations will have on the Columbia will not be coordinating power production, assuring flood control or divvying up money, but reacting to and riding out decades of upheaval in the hydrology, biology, health, uses, economies and ecologies of this vast watershed and its waters.

Power production will be in great flux, as will flood management, fishing, farming, water supply and public health.

No single treaty or legal process will address this challenge or all the ways people must come together across borders to meet it. But the Columbia River Treaty is a foundation to build from. States, tribes, fishing groups, businesses, federal agencies and citizen groups support one basic change: To the treaty’s two current purposes of power production and flood risk management, add a coequal third that is the ecosystem function. In other words, add the health of the river and its watershed.

In the Northwest, ecosystem function is economic function. This has always been true with salmon. A sick Columbia cannot generate a productive salmon economy; a healthy Columbia can. Energy production, water supply and flood management could also grow in value. A functioning ecosystem is a nest egg, a flexible all-purpose tool that British Columbia and the Northwest now need in the treaty.

Indeed, the very act of negotiating a modernized treaty during the next two years would spark the problem-solving dialogues needed between Canadian and American people.

Other changes are needed to modernize the Columbia River Treaty, but our coalition believes that changing it to help people on both sides of the border meet our joint climate challenge is the most important. We urge President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to agree, and go forward.

Joseph Bogaard is executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. He and his wife Amy own a farm on Vashon Island.

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