News & Features

Montanans to Treaty Negotiators: ‘Lincoln County Needs to Get a Piece of the Pie’

Columbia River Treaty negotiators hold town hall meeting in Kalispell to discuss modernizing international water treaty

When the Libby Dam was completed in the 1970s and the Kootenai River Valley was flooded behind it, some of John Doble’s family’s ranch land was submerged underneath what is now known as Lake Koocanusa.

Doble said his family was still able to work the land that remained and operate their Christmas tree farm — it was the creation of the artificial Christmas tree that really sunk that business — but years later it’s plainly obvious to Doble and others like him that they lost much more than land. They lost communities.

With the creation of the reservoir, thousands of acres of taxable land were taken away, as was the largest local taxpayer in that part of Lincoln County, the Great Northern Railway, which rerouted its main line to the south. Within a few years, the small school districts that once populated the area north of Rexford had to consolidate, and today most students go to school in Eureka.

The same story can be told north of the border, where three other dams created by an international water compact called the Columbia River Treaty also flooded and displaced communities. But unlike Lincoln County, those communities got a check.

Doble and about 200 other people, many from Lincoln County, attended a March 20 Kalispell town hall with the federal officials who are currently working with their counterparts in Canada to modernize the 55-year-old treaty. While stakeholders from all across the Columbia River Basin came to share their thoughts about the future of the treaty, the thoughts of Lincoln County were best summed up by one Eureka man: “Lincoln County needs to get a piece of the pie.”

The Columbia River Treaty and the four dams it created were a response to the devastating floods that annually ravaged the Pacific Northwest, most notably the 1948 flood in Vanport, Oregon that killed more than 30 people. As an added benefit to flood control, the dams also created a massive amount of electricity. The treaty has no expiration date, but either country can cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024, as long as they give a 10-year notice. Since 2013, U.S. and Canadian negotiators have met five times looking for common ground to modernize the treaty.

One of the American team’s top priorities is to change how Canada is paid for water storage. The 1964 treaty called for a one-time payment equal to half of the downstream power generated in the United States 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. American officials believe that is too steep of a price to pay moving forward.

Jill Smail, chief treaty negotiator for the U.S. Department of State, said during the March 20 meeting that she couldn’t go into specifics about what has been discussed with Canada but that progress was being made.

“Our conversations have been frank and productive,” she said.

Town hall meetings have taken place across the basin during the course of negotiations to gather input on how the American side should move forward. American officials have said their primary objectives are to maintain effective flood control operations, improve benefits to the ecosystem and make sure that power generation payments are fair to both sides of the border.

During the meeting, more than two-dozen people stood up to share their thoughts. A number of stakeholders from Oregon, including a representative of Gov. Kate Brown’s office, spoke about the importance of maintaining assured flood control in the basin. Currently, Canada promises to hold water back to make sure water flow is consistent and impacts from high runoff are minimal. But in 2024, the assured flood control provision expires and reverts to “called-upon” flood control. In order for the United States to request that Canada holds back more water, flows would have to exceed target levels at the Dalles Dam in the Columbia River Gorge. Oregon officials worry called-upon flood control could result in higher water on the lower Columbia River and damage levees in Portland.

The shipping community, specifically barge operators on the Columbia River, also worry that inconsistent water flows through the gorge could negatively impact their industry. A representative of the Montana Grain Growers Association said dramatic changes to shipping in the Columbia River Gorge would negatively impact their members as well.

For Montana residents, though, the biggest concern raised during the meeting was making sure Lincoln County was compensated for the land it lost under Lake Koocanusa. During the meeting, state Republican Sen. Mike Cuffe — a leading advocate for changing the Canadian Entitlement and the man many credit for convincing federal officials to have a meeting in Montana — handed the negotiators copies of a joint House and Senate resolution that calls on federal officials to negotiate some sort of compensation for Lincoln County for holding water. The measure won near-unanimous support in both chambers.

“Montana should receive benefits that it was denied during the first round of treaty negotiations,” said Rep. Steve Gunderson, who represents House District 1 in Lincoln County.

Others, including Sen. Bruce Gillespie, a Republican who represents Senate District 9, suggested that money Montana received from the Columbia River Treaty could go toward fighting aquatic invasive species.

“If you protect Montana, you protect the entire Pacific Northwest,” he said.

But most people from Lincoln County said any money received as the result of a renegotiated Columbia River Treaty should go to the communities impacted most by the creation of Lake Koocanusa. An official from the Eureka School District said he could find numerous ways to spend money in his school district, especially after the failure of a number of recent school levies.

Dovle, whose family lost ranch land to the lake back in the 1970s, said he knows money from the Columbia River Treaty wouldn’t solve all of Lincoln County’s problems, but it would certainly help.

“We got a pretty crappy end of the stick in Lincoln County, to put it bluntly,” he said after the meeting.

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