Montana’s Congressional Delegation Urge President to Make Columbia River Treaty Priority

By Beacon Staff

The Pacific Northwest Congressional Delegation is urging the president to make the Columbia River Treaty a top priority in 2014. Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh and Rep. Steve Daines all signed a letter sent to President Barack Obama on April 15 discussing the importance of the international treaty that governs flood control and hydropower production in the Columbia River Basin in the United States and Canada.

The treaty was implemented in 1964 and led to the construction of four dams, three in British Columbia and one in the United States, the Libby Dam. The treaty has no expiration date, but it can be canceled or changed beginning in 2024 with at least 10 year’s notice. For the last few years, agencies in the U.S. and Canada have been studying the treaty and looking for ways to modernize it. Last December, the U.S. Entity offered its recommendation to the U.S. Department of State, which will take the lead in negotiating with Canada.

“This is an issue of paramount importance for the entire Pacific Northwest as it directly affects our economy, the environment, and the flood control needs of communities along more than 1,200 miles of the Columbia River and its tributaries,” the letter read.

More than two-dozen senators and representatives from the Northwest signed the letter to President Obama.

The treaty’s roots stem from the floods that devastated the region before the 1960s, including a 1948 flood that destroyed the town of Vanport, Oregon, killing 50 people. The treaty resulted in dams being built in both the U.S. and Canada and, since most of the water is stored in Canada, the U.S. paid $64.4 million to its northern neighbor for 60 years of flood control. Another part of the agreement called for a one-time payment equal to half of the downstream power generated in the U.S. for 30 years. That payment of $254 million worth of electricity helped Canada build its three treaty dams. 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, known as the Canadian Entitlement.

The Canadian Entitlement could become a sticking point for negotiations between the two countries. The U.S. Entity, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, recommended lessening the entitlement payments because it has already paid off the construction costs of the three dams in British Columbia. But in British Columbia’s recommendation to its federal government, the province argues that the ongoing impacts to the Canadian Columbia Basin should be “acknowledged and compensated for,” particularly the recreational benefits reaped by the United States.

One point both sides do agree on is modernizing the treaty to contend with environmental concerns. Michael Coffey, spokesperson for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said both countries want to do more to protect plants and animals in the basin and do more to prepare for issues brought about by climate change.

“The U.S. Department of State is now in the process of determining what steps to take,” Coffey said.

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