Our Voice: Negotiating new Columbia River Treaty a difficult balancing act

May 15, 2013 

A framed copy of the Herald’s first extra edition adorns the wall of our boardroom. A bold headline spans the top of the 65-year-old paper — “FLOOD EXTRA!”

The editorial board ought to hang a copy of the Columbia River Treaty next to it. The agreement between Canada and the United States, signed by President Eisenhower in 1961, has prevented a recurrence of the devastating flood of ’48.

The relentless river wiped out the town of Vanport, Ore., near Portland, leaving about 18,000 residents homeless and killing at least 15.

The Tri-Cities was more fortunate, but rising waters caused about $483 million in damages here, measured in today’s dollars, and 19-year-old Vernal Nield was electrocuted when a live wire fell into the water at his parents’ restaurant in Richland.

Since then, dam construction spurred by the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada has turned the 1,243-mile Columbia River into one of the most tightly controlled rivers in the world.

At the outset, the United States paid Canada $64 million for 60 years of flood protection, helping to build three new major dams.

Once the Columbia reaches Lake Roosevelt at the border, it makes its way through another 11 dams and reservoirs before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

In all, the Columbia River basin is home to 274 hydroelectric dams.

Before the treaty, Grand Coulee and Rock Island dams offered the only protection against floods. After 1948, it was clear they weren’t up to the job.

Of course, flood control isn’t the only benefit of the Columbia River’s dams, but that function has been performed so well over the last half-century that it’s easy to forget we ever were at risk.

The treaty also addressed hydroelectric production. A group of U.S. utilities agreed to give $254 million to Canada for half the electricity produced downstream during the first 30 years of the agreement.

In 1994, the United States began paying a yearly amount that fluctuates based on market prices, and those payments now range from $250 million to $300 million a year.

The treaty has no expiration date, but either nation may end the pact on Sept. 16, 2024, with a 10-year notice. In other words, both sides need to figure out what to do by next year.

That has opened the doors to negotiations on a range of issues that are connected to the Columbia River and its dams — recreation, irrigation, barge traffic, salmon restoration and even global warming.

Stakeholders have been jockeying for position. Northwest Indian tribes are particularly interested in a treaty that improves conditions for salmon.

The fact is, all the uses of the Columbia River system are crucial to the Northwest’s economy and our quality of life. Any changes involve complex trade-offs.

Improving fish passage could reduce power production for example, but replacing lost power with other sources would likely increase the level of greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.

Replacing all of the system’s 22,060 megawatts with natural gas-fired plants, for example, would add as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as an additional 17 million cars.

That’s an unrealistic scenario, but negotiators have a tough job trying to find the right balance. It’s not just flood control and electricity anymore.

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