Roll on with an updated Columbia River pact

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SEATTLE — Bill Drummond, head of the Bonneville Power Administration, has it right. He describes the Columbia River Treaty as the most important document affecting the Pacific Northwest economy you never heard of.

The treaty between the U.S. and Canada manages water flow in the vast Columbia River basin for generating hydropower and reducing flood risks.

The treaty, signed in 1964, has been under intense review on each side of the border for years, pending State Department-level negotiations next year.

Regulating the Columbia became a priority after the 1948 Vanport flood wiped out Oregon’s second-largest city at the time.

The treaty runs for 60 years, and does not automatically end in 2024. Either side can terminate the treaty or seek modifications, but with 10 years notice. That makes 2014 a focal point.

Reworking the treaty is a topic in some British Columbia provincial elections Tuesday, decades after land was lost and landscapes changed. The treaty created three dams in Canada and one in the U.S.

Ask the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines what its side wants reworked in the treaty. No cards revealed.

On the U.S. side, BPA, which oversees energy transmission, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, are no more forthcoming.

The two agencies lead a review team with representatives from the four Northwest states, 15 tribal governments and 11 federal agencies.

Under the treaty, the U.S. paid the Canadian government $64 million to help defray the cost of dam construction and provided a formula for sharing the hydropower generated in the U.S.

For 30 years, Canada’s power share was resold, and the money went to the B.C. provincial government. Now the U.S. says the original deal to cover construction and overhead is settled, and a recalculated formula would give Canada a substantially reduced entitlement.

Among those nodding their heads in agreement are Seattle City Light and the Mid-Columbia public utility districts, whose rates, and customers, help cover those payments.

The Mid-Columbia PUDs met in Pasco on Tuesday confident that terminating the treaty would save them money, but with acknowledged uncertainty about the future.

Unknown issues include impacts on fish and wildlife, navigation, water supply, irrigation, climate change, recreation and cultural resources. The 1964 treaty was solely about hydropower and flood control. Salmon and consequences for Native Americans were not imagined as topics.

All of the ecosystem and cultural values are fully and belatedly in play, and have been subject to federal analysis. Although Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, is frustrated the Corps and BPA have not shared details and results.

A key treaty element does end in 2024. A protocol known as assured flood control will be replaced with “called upon” procedures.

Instead of assumed routines for annual flood prevention, the U.S. has to maximize the effective use of its reservoirs and protections, and then call upon Canada for special help, as needed, and pay for it.

That requires too much reading of the Murchie’s tea leaves for my comfort, especially as the calculations get more difficult.

Continuing power demands and all of the elements ignored in the existing treaty will thin flood-risk margins to provide more water or more storage at the right times of year. Those needs and nature’s cycles are often at odds.

The idea that the Northwest can save a few dollars and go it alone without the skills, cooperation and goodwill of Canada is a risky, false economy.

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