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Columbia River flood control and power rates will depend on these talks

Negotiations are expected to start May 29 on a treaty with Canada that governs the operation of dams on the Columbia River. This is Grand Coulee Dam with Lake Roosevelt behind it.
Negotiations are expected to start May 29 on a treaty with Canada that governs the operation of dams on the Columbia River. This is Grand Coulee Dam with Lake Roosevelt behind it. AP File

Long-awaited negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada will kick off May 29-30 in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Department of State announced on Tuesday.

The announcement drew praise from Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., and Reps. Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, both R-Wash.

The treaty, signed in 1964, provides the framework for flood control and coordinated hydropower generation on the 1,200-mile Columbia River.

It also has contributed to other benefits, including supporting the river's ecosystems, irrigation, municipal and industrial water use, navigation and recreation, according to the State Department.

"The Columbia River Treaty is integral to so much of the Pacific Northwest way of life — from our economy, to our environment, to our culture and heritage — so it's hard to overstate the importance of updating this treaty to meet modern-day issues," Murray said.

Newhouse called the negotiations long overdue.

Capture army corps dams.JPG
There are more than 250 reservoirs and around 150 hydroelectric projects in the Columbia River Basin, including 18 main-stem dams on the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

Washington state's congressional delegation has urged the federal government since as early as 2014, when either country could move to end much of the treaty's provisions by giving 10-years notice. Other provisions, such as a requirement that Canada provide downstream flood control, expire in 2024.

Newhouse is concerned that an equitable arrangement is reached to benefit both countries.

The Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a regional recommendation that calls for the historic focus of power generation and flood control to be expanded to also include ecosystem goals, such as stream flows with appropriate timing, quantity and water quality for salmon.

The recommendation also called for reconsideration of the "Canadian Entitlement," the deal that is providing Canada with $250 million to $350 million a year worth of electrical power in exchange for storing water in huge reservoirs that can be released to boost U.S. hydropower generation.

The benefit is higher than anticipated by the United States when the treaty was signed.

"It's my hope we can update and rebalance the terms of this agreement so it can remain mutually beneficial into the 21st Century," McMorris Rodgers said.

The current treaty requirements for providing power to Canada place an unfair burden on consumers in the Northwest, according to her staff.

Cantwell call the start of treaty negotiations a positive step.

"This is a very positive step. The State Department and Canada must now work to include input from all parties," she said.

Treaty negotiations will include the State Department, along with the BPA and Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division, the two agencies that implement the treaty in the United States. Also at the negotiating table will be the Department of Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The U.S. government plans public town halls as negotiations proceed. No dates or locations have been announced.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533
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