Changes to Columbia River Treaty might affect Mid-Columbia

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMay 3, 2013 

Issues vital to the Mid-Columbia, including Columbia River recreation, irrigation and fish habitat, plus power rates, could be affected by possible changes in the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada.

A meeting is scheduled Tuesday in Pasco on parts of the treaty, which could be terminated in 2024 if either the United States or Canada requests it.

Ten years notice is required, which means the United States must be ready in 2014 to negotiate changes related to ending the treaty or changing it.

The Columbia River Treaty, ratified in 1964, required Canada to build three dams on the Columbia and a tributary to provide flood control and allowed the United States to build a dam on the Kootenai River in Montana that created a reservoir that extends 42 miles into Canada.

The treaty was prompted in part by a 1948 flood that destroyed Vanport, Oregon's second largest city, because dams on the Columbia River had too little storage capacity. The treaty dams doubled that storage capacity.

The treaty also was prompted by increased demand for electricity, which could be supplied by hydropower.

As the treaty dams were completed, the United States paid Canada $64.4 million for half the estimated worth of the U.S. flood damages that would be prevented through 2024.

In addition, the U.S. agreed to deliver electrical power to Canada through 2024 as a sort of mortgage payment to continue to cover the cost of building the Canadian dams. The value of that power, which Canada may use or sell, now ranges from $250 million to $350 million a year.

After 2024, Canada still must continue to provide water storage for the Columbia River to benefit the United States, said Mike Hansen of the Bonneville Power Administration. But the treaty specifies it now will be on a pay-as-you-go basis.

BPA sees value to continued coordination with Canada, which sometimes loses power generation benefits because of U.S. needs.

But that value is significantly less than half of the current payments of $250 million to $350 million a year, Hansen said.

Canada has let the United States know that while it continues to provide water storage, it expects the U.S. to make effective use of its own storage. No specifics have been worked out. However, it could mean that at times U.S. reservoirs might have to be drawn down below the levels needed to operate equipment for irrigation systems.

In addition, if the reservoirs are going up and down, including at docks, recreational users could be affected.

"We have to figure out what the coordination looks like and what it is worth," Hansen said.

If payments to Canada decrease, consumers could see the results on their power bills.

There also has been discussion about using savings to benefit the ecosystem, including by tribes who have fishing rights on the Columbia River but were not included in negotiations for the original treaty.

Irrigators also have asked if it would be possible to buy more water from Canada, Hansen said.

The Army Corps of Engineers and BPA, the agencies responsible for implementing the treaty for the United States, are conducting a multiyear study of what could happen with the treaty after 2024.

It is intended to develop a recommendation with broad regional support that will be sent to the U.S. Department of State to support negotiations with Canada about the future of the treaty.

A draft of the recommendation is expected to be available in September, and the final draft to help decide the future of the treaty will be given to the State Department by December.

Residents may learn more and share their opinions at the Pasco meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Holiday Inn Express, 4525 Convention Place, near TRAC. It is one of 14 meetings being held in the Northwest.

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