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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

col.gorgeDecember 9, 2013 

By Geoff Folsom

Pasco — Competing visions of the Columbia River and its future were on display Monday in the council chambers at Pasco City Hall.

The topic was the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada, which could be terminated in 2024 if either side gives notice by next year.
No one at Monday’s hearing of the Natural Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives said they want the treaty canceled. But several expressed a desire to see it improved and modernized.

Gregory Haller, conservation director for the Portland-based Pacific Rivers Council, said preserving the ecosystem should be a primary function of a modernized treaty.

Much work needs to be done to improve the river’s flow and water temperatures, reconnect flood plains and improve salmon passage, Haller said.

“As a result of dam building throughout the basin, the Columbia River is now a highly fragmented and mechanized system, with degraded habitat, poor water quality and numerous (Endangered Species Act) listed salmon and steelhead runs,” he said.

Haller suggested that an ecosystem expert be added to the U.S. negotiating team, which now includes the Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers. Such an expert could come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service or the 15 Columbia Basin tribes, he said.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, who led the hearing, disagreed.

An endangered species program for Columbia River salmon already addresses ecological concerns and has resulted in near-record returns, Hastings said.

Hastings was concerned that a revised treaty would include ecological impact as a core provision, he said, but feels more comfortable with revisions that have yet to be publicly released.

“This year, for example, nearly one million fall Chinook salmon returned,” Hastings told the audience of about 60. “Ultimately, a collective biological opinion process — rather than ongoing litigation — is the appropriate way to address many of the ecosystem issues being proposed by some in the treaty context.”

The current treaty, signed in 1964, focuses on flood control and hydropower. It was prompted in part by a 1948 flood that destroyed Vanport — Oregon’s second largest city — because dams on the river had too little storage capacity. The treaty dams doubled that storage.

Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, a Portland group that represents consumer-owned utilities in the Pacific Northwest, argued that reducing the “Canadian entitlement” should be the top priority in renegotiations.

Corwin was referring to the $250 million to $350 million worth of electric power the U.S. sends Canada each year as part of the treaty, according to Bonneville Power Administration estimates. Canadian officials say that amount is much less.

“If this inequity is not addressed, it will be an enormous lost opportunity and disservice to the citizens of the Northwest United States,” Corwin said. “We share the goal of building the broadest agreement possible to build a base of better engagement with Canada next year.”

Kathy Eichenberger of the British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines testified that the advantages of the treaty go beyond power costs.

The U.S. saved $2 billion in potential damages because of coordinated flood control in 2011 alone, Eichenberger said.

“Since the treaty storage became operational, there has never been a flood causing major damage along the Columbia River,” she said.

British Columbia expects to make its draft recommendation this month, Eichenberger said.

U.S. officials expect to submit their treaty recommendations to the State Department by Friday, BPA acting administrator Elliot Mainzer said.

After the two-hour hearing, Hastings said the differences on the entitlement still have to be negotiated. Adjusting the entitlement could save Northwest ratepayers millions.

“Clearly, the Canadians have a different view than we do,” he said. “At some point, they’ll have to sit down with numbers and say, ‘OK, these are our numbers, those are your numbers, let’s figure out where the commonality is.’ ”

Hastings was joined at the hearing by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the natural resources committee’s ranking Democrat.

“The worst result is if we end up deferring to Washington, D.C., on the shape of the treaty and the changes to it,” DeFazio told the Herald.

“We’ve got some difficult issues and differences to work through, but I think we saw today that they’re not that great. I think we will continue to try to address everyone’s concerns, not completely, because the river is ultimately a limited resource.”

Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543;; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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