Dam takedown at its roots, the Columbia River Treaty sets the base for how the system is managed from water flow to fishing. This treaty is an international agreement between the United States (U.S.) and Canada affecting the Columbia River Basin to reduce downstream flooding and increase power generation. It was implemented in 1964 and extends for 60 years until 2024.
The initial purpose of the treaty was to provide a method for financing and building the dams and generating equipment providing flood protection and electrical power. U.S. funding was used to develop Canadian resources. The benefits of the joint project were to be shared by both parties. That has been achieved. We are now within the period when proposed changes to treaty can be made. Any changes could have major economic, environmental, social and quality-of life-impacts on the Mid-Columbia region.
Circumstances on the U.S. side have changed since the treaty was signed almost 50 years ago. Developments in the potential flood plain have increased. Rainfall patterns and volumes are changing. Water flow in the U.S. portion of the river system has been altered for fishery management by court decisions. Power generation economics have been affected by international fuel supplies and pricing. The demand for power has increased as the populations served have dramatically increased since 1964. Environmental regulations covering power plant emissions and concerns about fossil fuel use have increased the importance of hydroelectric power generation. Northwest utilities have also experienced higher costs for regulatory compliance than what were assumed in the initial treaty.
The construction of three Canadian dams plus Libby Dam in Montana more than doubled the system’s storage capacity. The treaty requirements for operation of Canadian dams decreases the risk of major flooding events, such as the 1948 flood that destroyed Vanport, Oregon’s second-largest city. Coordinated management gives opportunities for releasing water at times needed for power generation and other downstream benefits such as fisheries and irrigation water supply in the United States. In return, U.S. power entities provide $100 million to 300 million of power to Canada each year.
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The U.S. interests believe the annual Canadian power entitlement is far in excess of what was forecast when the treaty was signed, and should be scaled back. British Columbia residents feel that they were not adequately compensated for loss of land and economic potential when the treaty was signed, and they would prefer more stable reservoir levels in B.C. In the 1960s, those most affected by the dam system were not consulted, and that included the sovereign Native American and First Nations peoples. They endured substantial sacrifices to cultural, health, social, religious, and ecosystem resources. Now they ask to participate, and incorporate ecosystem-based function as a third primary treaty purpose beyond flood control and hydropower.
It’s time to look at updating the agreement to ensure prosperity for both the U.S. and Canadian regions that are dependent on this vital natural resource.
Negotiations have begun and this forum will be informational and educational instead of the typical Columbia Basin Badger Club debate style.
To help us understand the treaty issues and implications with greater clarity, the Columbia Basin Badger Club has brought in Kristin Meira, Pacific Northwest Waterways Association and utility and government representatives have been invited.
The Columbia Basin Badger Club is a nonpartisan Tri-City organization that is dedicated to civil discourse on topics important to our region.
Allan Konopka is a member of the Program Committee for the Columbia Basin Badger Club. He is a retired microbial ecologist who lives in Kennewick.
John Swope is a member of the Columbia Basin Badger Club board.
IF YOU GO
When: 11:30 a.m. Dec 8
Where: Shilo Inn, 50 Comstock St., Richland
Cost: $20 for Badger Club members, $25 for nonmembers, $30 for day-of-event registration. Price includes lunch.
RSVP: Call 628-6011 or go to