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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Christine Pratt, Sept. 17, 2013

The Columbia Basin’s 15 tribal groups are urging Northwest utilities and big power users to back a federal recommendation to add fish-restoration and conservation mandates to a landmark, U.S.-Canada treaty conceived 50 years ago only for flood control and hydropower generation.

“We tried the experiment of hydropower being optimized without regard for ecology, and it failed,” said Paul Lumley, a member of the Yakama Nation and executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The Portland-based group lobbies to restore and conserve Columbia Basin fish.

The tribes are encouraged by a federal draft recommendation, released June 27, that would add expand the Columbia River Treaty to oblige the U.S. and Canada to manage water-releases through Columbia River dams and reservoirs not only to optimize flood control and hydropower generation, but also to help migratory fish survive and flourish.

The Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have received more than 3,000 public comments on their first draft recommendation. The agencies’ next draft is due out Friday.

Both countries get their first chance next year to open the treaty to change.

A group of 70 electricity utilities, including the Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan County PUDs, and big power users and industry organizations have flatly opposed adding “ecosystem function” as the treaty’s third pillar.

The group represents 6.4 million electric customers. It fears an ecosystem-enhanced treaty proposal would cost millions and reduce power generated, forcing them to raise power rates without any proven benefit.

They say the draft recommendation fails to acknowledge the investment in fish protections already achieved and detracts from what the group says should be the main focus of treaty negotiations — reducing treaty- mandated U.S. power payments to Canada.

These payments are known as the “Canadian Entitlement.” It represents half of the benefit to downriver hydropower generation gained from Canada’s huge treaty-mandated reservoirs, which capture seasonal runoff and release it gradually throughout the year.

Lumley said the tribes are urging power interests to rethink their view and discuss their differences and work toward a consensus the region can present to the U.S. State Department later this year.

Michael Finley, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, agrees. “We’re trying to return the river as close as it possibly can to its natural state… This isn’t just going to benefit the tribes. It would benefit the whole region… If we’re not unified on that message, we stand little chance of getting what we want.”

Scott Corwin, executive director of the Portland-based Public Power Council and a spokesman from the Power Group, said group members would be open to discussion after the second draft recommendation is released Friday.

Lumley acknowledges the Power Group’s investment in fish protections, but said it’s not enough.

He pointed to salmon returns that numbered an estimated 17 million before Columbia River dams were built.

This year, he said, even with many federal regulations in place to get fish past the dams, millions in federal and hydropower-sector investments and decades of fish-and-habitat work, an expected record- breaking salmon return would total only 2 million fish this year.

“Huge salmon runs once occurred. They’re gone now. And species are still on the endangered list,” he said. “There’s a long way to go for progress.”

Lumley said raising ecosystem function to treaty level would ensure that the entire Columbia River is managed to benefit fish by keeping more water in the river and preventing extreme reservoir drawdowns.

It could also oblige Canada to give the PUDs and local, state and federal agencies some credit for the habitat work and investment already made, Lumley says, resulting in a reduced Canadian Entitlement power deliveries.

The power group estimates that these power deliveries, valued at $250 million to $350 million annually, are some ten times larger than the actual benefit derived from Canadian water storage. The Chelan, Douglas and Grant PUDs provide 27.5 percent of this power.

Lumley said the tribes are also calling for fish passage at the biggest and most costly roadblocks — Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. They also want a voice in treaty negotiations, if and when they happen.

“I haven’t heard anybody on the U.S. side say we like the treaty the way it is,” Lumley said. “I would be happy to support a substantial reduction of the Canadian Entitlement if they would be willing to embrace ecosystem functions in the next treaty.”

He added, “One thing is clear. We as the Northwest region don’t make the decision to open up a conversation with Canada. The U.S. State Department does. And if we are a region in disarray, a region that has no consensus, that would be the worst possible outcome for the Northwest.”

The Colvilles’ Finley agreed. “We’re stewards of the land,” he said. “There has been so much detriment done to the mainstem Columbia and its tributaries over the years… that people have lost sight of what this river means. It’s incumbent upon us to leave the river in a better state than it was when we inherited it.”

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