YAKIMA — A U.S.-Canada treaty that governs operations of the fourth-largest river in North America — affecting everything from power prices and water supplies to grain shipments and recreation in the Pacific Northwest — should be renegotiated to make the system more flexible amid climate change and to aid threatened and endangered species that weren’t considered when the treaty was created decades ago, federal regulators recommended in a draft document released to The Associated Press.
However, the document also says efforts to improve the ecosystem should not impair often competing efforts to ensure long-enjoyed low power prices in the region, which are made possible by 11 U.S. hydropower dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries.
That language could assuage the concerns of power companies in the Northwest that feared the added emphasis on improving stream flows and habitat for fish could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and boost power prices for consumers and businesses drawn to the region by cheap power. Native American tribes and conservationists, meanwhile, may want even more guarantees that the ecosystem will be a major factor in how the river is operated for years to come.
Whether the document, to be released publicly Friday, will unite those varied interests remains to be seen.
Originating high in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, the Columbia River flows 1,240 miles through Canada and the United States to its mouth in the Pacific Ocean. Its drainage area crosses both countries and touches seven U.S. states, and its average annual runoff dwarfs the Colorado and Missouri rivers.
The runoff was deadly on Memorial Day 1948: Spring runoff from a melting heavy snowpack pushed the river over its banks far downstream in Oregon, killing more than 30 people and destroying the community of Vanport. Economic losses exceeded $100 million.
The disaster started negotiations between the U.S. and Canada for better management of the river’s dams and reservoirs, both for flood control and hydropower generation. The ensuing treaty, signed in 1964, has no expiration date, but either country may cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years’ notice.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are leading the review of the treaty in consultation with other federal agencies, four Northwest states and more than a dozen tribes. U.S. regulators will send their final recommendation in December to the State Department, where the ultimate decision on whether to renegotiate rests.
“The treaty has been a model of international water management,” said Steve Oliver of the Bonneville Power Administration, who is coordinating the effort for the U.S. entity. “And we feel like it is appropriate to review it at this time, and look at the potential to modernize it to create a win-win opportunity for regional ecosystem interests, hydropower interests and flood risk management.”
Under the treaty, Canada stores water behind three major dams for flood control and to maximize hydropower generation. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to pay Canada $64 million for flood control for the life of the treaty — far less than the estimated damages that would have occurred with additional flooding — and to send electricity generated at downstream U.S. hydropower dams to Canada.
As currently operated, the river is managed well for flood control, but the U.S. could study changes to river operations to boost water supplies in the summer if necessary, said Jim Barton of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the alternating chair for the U.S. Columbia River Treaty Operating Committee.
However, the document maintains that the U.S. should seek a more balanced share of the equity of the power that is sent to Canada, valued at between $250 million and $350 million.
The document also recommends ecosystem concerns be considered on equal footing with the original charges of hydropower generation and flood control.
At the time the treaty was signed, federal protections for endangered species didn’t exist — since then, 13 Pacific fish species have been listed for protection. In addition, tribal rights were not enforced, and climate change, which scientists predict will reduce or change the timing of water runoff in the basin, wasn’t an issue.
An earlier draft document, released in June, made the same recommendation, raising the ire of some public utility districts and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from Eastern Washington, who said that any extension or revision to the treaty should focus on the core purposes of the original: to provide flood control protection and ensure hydropower benefits.
That document, Hastings said, devoted significant attention to controversial issues that “are not germane to this international treaty.”
Oliver said the new draft is intended to address those concerns, by making clear that power payments to Canada should be eased and by sharing the costs of balancing the needs of the ecosystem with the treaty’s core goals.
Unity among the region’s stakeholders, including tribes, utilities, irrigators and shippers, will be important going forward, he said.
It’s more likely the treaty will continue on its current terms if there is no consensus, he said, but “the opportunity to modernize and improve the treaty could be lost.”