For almost 50 years the Columbia River Treaty has generated over $250 million annually with a notable portion of those funds being dispersed through the Basin communities.
Now, the Americans are looking to significantly re-negotiate those benefits.
The Columbia River Treaty (CRT) was signed between the countries in 1964 to develop and operate dams in the upper Columbia River basin for power and flood control benefits to both countries.
The Treaty was signed for a minimum length of 60 years, although either country can terminate it by providing 10 years advance, written notice (2014).
At stake is money, and a lot of it.
Every year since the treaty was signed, the Canadian Entitlement, a term coined for the ongoing downstream power benefits (from $250 million to $350 million), has been deposited into the coffers of the provincial government.
“There was an original calculation to what that entitlement should be,” said Mike Hanson, spokesperson for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). “That is the sticking point for us,” he said. “Canada is entitled to half of the downstream benefits on a yearly basis but we believe that the current value is worth significantly less than half of what we are currently paying.”
In 2010, a partnership between the BPA and the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was formed, known as the U.S. Entity.
The purpose of the Entity was to review the treaty and develop regional recommendations, “for what the northwest thinks we ought to do about the future of the CRT,” explained Hanson.
After three years of consultation with 15 regional tribes, stakeholders and 11 federal agencies from Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the Entity will take its final recommendations to the U.S. State Dept. in Washington D.C. mid-December, confirmed Hanson.
The first 60 years of the treaty made assumptions about the amount of thermal resources there would be in the northwest developed over time and there were assumptions made that Canada would build those facilities, he said.
“It was sort of like a mortgage and we believe those facilities, certainly by 2024, will be more than paid off and the entitlement shouldn’t include that.”
The U.S. Entity released draft recommendations in August, that include: ecosystem-based function as a third primary purpose for the Treaty; better address the region’s interest in reliable and sustainable hydropower; continue similar level of flood risk management; and create flexibility within the Treaty to respond to climate change, changing water needs and purposes such as navigation.
“I do want to emphasis that this treaty has been a model of international water management and we have a tremendous relationship with Canada on day-to day operations,” continued Hanson. “We are just looking for fairness and a treaty that will continue to provide the benefits that it has for the past 50 years.”
Aside from money, today there are concerns regarding the long-term social and economic impacts to the local communities on both sides of the border, and the environmental effects associated with the construction and operation of large dams.
Rachael Osborn, director at the Columbia Institute for Water Policy based in Spokane, said that the CRT review process and possible negotiations present opportunities to improve the health of the Columbia River. “The proposal to add ecosystem function as a co-equal purpose is fantastic,” said Osborn. “We’ve spent years litigating and spending enormous amounts of money and planning to get healthy salmon back into the river,” she said adding, “it is regrettable we can’t go back to 1964 but we can change the emphasis on how the river is managed.”