LIBBY – Although it’s made from enough concrete to build a highway from here to Washington D.C., what really holds the millions of gallons of water in Lake Koocanusa isn’t the Libby Dam. Instead, it is written on a few sheets of paper, displayed atop the massive structure: the Columbia River Treaty.
Signed in 1961 and implemented three years later, the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada led to the construction of four large dams in the river basin. For a half-century, these dams, and the treaty, have offered flood control and hydroelectricity in the basin, which encompasses a vast swath of the Pacific Northwest. Now, agencies on both sides of the border are studying the treaty before 2014, the earliest date either country could ask to modify or terminate the international agreement in 2024.
Regardless of what happens, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration say how the dams and reservoirs are operated will change in 2024. This spring, public meetings will be held across the region to discuss what might happen.
“There are things that are going to change no matter what happens during the treaty review,” said U.S. Army Corps spokesperson Amy Echols.
The roots of the treaty are found in floods that devastated the region before the 1960s, specifically a 1948 flood that destroyed the town of Vanport, Ore. and killed 50 people. Prior to the Libby Dam’s construction, floods caused more than $522 million in damage in both the United States and Canada between 1948 and 1961.
After 15 years of negotiations, the Columbia River Treaty was signed in the early 1960s. With four new dams, the Canadian and American governments could control rivers across the basin, including the Kootenai River. Since most of the water is stored in Canada, the United States paid $64.4 million to its northern neighbor for 60 years of flood control. The original agreement also included a one-time payment equal to half the downstream power generated in the United States for 30 years. The payment of $254 million worth of electricity helped Canada build three dams in its country. That part of the agreement expired in 2003 and since then the United States has delivered a daily allotment of power to Canada, worth $222 million to $359 million annually.
“Basically we got a really good deal for 30 years and then Canada got a good deal,” said Mike Hansen, spokesperson for the Bonneville Power Administration.
This year, officials on both sides of the border are reviewing the treaty and plan on making recommendations as to whether it will be continued, modified or terminated. Echols said the study is complex and it is too early to speculate what might happen, but officials hope to make changes that will benefit the environment and wildlife.
“When the treaty was first signed, it was primarily about flood control and power generation, but now we have the potential to do something better,” Hansen said.
Unless the treaty is terminated, most conditions will continue indefinitely. One part that will change is flood control. While Canada will still have to help hold water to prevent floods downstream, the United States will have to reimburse its northern neighbor for operational costs. The United States will also have to exhaust all of its storage space before calling upon Canada to help.
According to Matt Rea, program manager for the Army Corps, Montanans may notice an increase in drawdowns on local reservoirs that could impact recreation and other outdoor activity.
Those impacts will be discussed at a series of meetings across the Northwest this spring. The BPA and Army Corps will hold meetings in Libby on May 13, Eureka on May 15 and Kalispell on May 16. The presentations will give attendees background on the treaty and a chance to provide feedback.
Last month, British Columbia hosted similar meetings and Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of the Columbia River Treaty Review for British Columbia, says public input will shape what the provincial government does.
“We see this as a great opportunity to see how things have gone in the last 50 years,” she said. “To see what worked and what hasn’t.”
Following the meetings this spring, BPA and Army Corps will compile the information it has gathered and make a final recommendation to the State Department by the end of the year. The State Department will then work with the Canadian government on any changes that might be made to the treaty.
Although no one in Canada or the United States knows how the treaty might change, both countries agree that the Columbia River Treaty is valued.
“The treaty has worked very well and we get calls from all over the world wanting to know how we’ve done it,” Eichenberger said.
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