U.S. stakes out position on Columbia River Treaty

Associated PressDecember 13, 2013 

PORTLAND — The United States has staked out its position for potential negotiations with Canada about a treaty governing hydropower and flood control on the Columbia River, and it seeks to keep more of the energy produced at dams.

The final recommendations, sent by U.S. regulators to the State Department on Friday, also call for making ecosystem improvements a third primary purpose of the treaty — in addition to flood control and production of hydropower.

The treaty, which was signed in 1964 and governs operations of dams and reservoirs on the fourth-largest river in North America, has no expiration date. But either country may cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years’ notice.

The United States’ position is that it should pay dramatically less for the benefits it gets through the treaty.

The U.S. has paid Canada a one-time payment of $64 million for flood control for the first 60 years of the treaty. And annually, it sends Canada half the increased power generation at downstream U.S. hydropower dams. That increased power results from the operation of additional storage capacity created by the three dams built in Canada.

Earlier, when Canada didn’t need hydropower, the U.S. sold that power to utilities in the U.S. for $254 million through the first 30 years of the treaty. Canada used that money to finance the construction of its three Columbia River dams. The last payment to Canada under the first 30-year power sales contract was in 2003.

Since then, the U.S. delivers the power benefits of the treaty directly to Canada. The delivery is valued at approximately $250 million to $350 million a year.

The U.S. now says that because it has paid off the cost of the Canadian dams, it should send less power as part of its Canadian Entitlement obligations.

Instead, the U.S. says future payment calculations should be based on how Canada runs the system to benefit the U.S. Under the treaty, Canada stores water behind three major dams for flood control and to maximize hydropower generation.

U.S. regulators say flood risk level and hydropower production should remain at a similar level if the treaty is renegotiated, and any savings achieved through the increase in power benefits that would remain in the U.S. should benefit both the ecosystem and power users.

According to the recommendations, the treaty should also include ways to mitigate for the impacts of climate change and to aid threatened and endangered species that weren’t considered when the treaty was created decades ago.

"After three years of collaboration with a wide variety of interests in the region, we believe we are recommending a win-win approach to the future of the Columbia River Treaty that will be broadly supported by the people of the Pacific Northwest," said Elliot Mainzer, acting administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and chair of the U.S. entity that led the recommendation process.

Canada hasn’t released a corresponding final negotiation stand, but a draft released earlier this year recommended the U.S. pay more in hydropower for getting recreational and other benefits under the Columbia River Treaty.

Canada agrees with the U.S. on making the system more flexible to respond to climate change and improving the ecosystem.

But the two countries differ on fish passage. While the U.S. wants to pursue a joint program with Canada to study the possibility of restoring fish passage on Columbia’s main stem to Canadian spawning grounds, Canada indicates restoration of fish passage and habitat is not a treaty issue.

Many U.S. stakeholders praised the U.S. recommendations.

"We are pleased to see that the ecosystem is included in the recommendation as a new pillar to the Columbia River Treaty. The tribes also look forward to working with the First Nations of Canada to restore fish passage to all historic locations," Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Paul Lumley said in a statement.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement, “I am encouraged that regional stakeholders have reached a consensus on recommendations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.”

A statement from Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said, “While I continue to have concerns about aspects of the recommendation related to ecosystem issues, I’m pleased that the U.S. Entity made significant improvements in the final draft by focusing on post-2024 flood control operations and the reduction of the Canadian entitlement and by reflecting greater input from irrigation and navigation interests.”

Both Murray and Hastings said they will work to make sure that the treaty remains a priority and that regional stakeholders continue to be heard.

DUtilities hailed the need to rebalance the sharing of power benefits between the U.S. and Canada.

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