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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Lance Dickie / Times editorial columnist

October 25, 2013

columbia.r-largeHave any last thoughts or advice for revisions to the Columbia River Treaty before the discussions shift from Sullivan’s Gulch to Foggy Bottom?

Since 1964, the treaty has shaped the river’s 1,240-mile aqueous path from Canada into the United States and on to the Pacific Ocean.

Created to ensure flood control and promote hydropower generation, the treaty is on the cusp of negotiated changes between the two countries. Or not.

The treaty has no specified end, but either side can terminate with 10 years’ notice in 2014. Otherwise, the treaty continues beyond 2024, with one significant change to flood-control protocols.

The current system of “assured control,” which has worked well for decades, would end in 2024 whether or not there is a treaty. A bad idea, in my opinion.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland led the treaty review on behalf of the U.S. Entity. They consulted with a Sovereign Review Team made up of representatives from four states, 15 tribes and 10 federal agencies. Other designated stakeholders were involved.

Both the U.S. and Canada have prepared drafts that point ahead. The U.S. draft will be finalized and forwarded to the U.S. State Department by mid-December, with the expectation of a decision by the feds on proceeding into international negotiations by mid-2014. The goal is to finish by 2015.

Any operating manual that is a half-century old can be freshened up a bit. The list of priorities has expanded on the U.S. side to include flood risk management, ecosystem functions, water supply, hydropower, navigation, recreation and a need for flexibility in the face of climate change.

U.S. interests view existing treaty language as significantly overpaying Canada for initial accommodations and expenses long since recovered.

Treaty revisions seek to rebalance payments to reflect the current value of coordinated operations.

Hydropower interests — electric utilities — want financial credit and an adjustment in the entitlement formula with Canada that reflects decades of expensive environmental mitigations in the Columbia power system.

Canada’s polite response is to roll its eyes at the notion that the compensation levels are too high, especially if the full range of downstream benefits for the U.S. are included and tallied.

The U.S. power folks wag a finger back across the border — or some similar gesture — and say that if treaty changes do not produce an equitable outcome for their ratepayers, then start the 10-year clock running on treaty termination.

I cannot accept that significant, coordinated improvements in salmon survival, water supply, navigation and recreation cannot be negotiated without the implosion of a treaty that works.

Canada is a reliable neighbor, a solid ally and vital trading partner. I doubt the U.S. State Department is eager to provoke the folks across the table, be they from Ottawa or Victoria.

A recent headline in The New York Times speaks to our neighbor’s growing world view: “Canada and Europe Reach Tentative Trade Agreement.”

A core purpose at stake remains flood management. Assured control has worked. A “called upon” flood-control regime, the prospective model, cannot be defined by either side as to “effective use” or how to confidently “rely” on the approach.

The change fuels disagreement about how many reservoirs the U.S. has available to employ for flood control, or who has the authority to dictate their use. Without treaty protections, assured control morphs into, “Gosh, it’s been kind of rainy.” Tiers of bureaucracy. Tears of remorse.

If the Columbia River fills with water, the Willamette River, which feeds into it, backs up with more water. Portland knows this all too well.

I do not believe the U.S. overpays for a system that works. One massive flood and any annual savings look ridiculous. Could the payment regimen be modestly revised? Make the case, U.S.

Treaty revisions coming out of the Pacific Northwest must be focused and selective. Otherwise, I wonder if the State Department will be an advocate.

Termination of the treaty? A mindless option right up there with government shutdowns and credit defaults.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. 

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