Selenium and the Columbia River Treaty

Selenium in Lake Koocanusa must be taken seriously, and elimination of the right to divert water is critical

By Mike Cuffe

Serious talk about selenium concentrations in the Kootenai River drainage must include the water diversion allowed in Columbia River Treaty (CRT). Any concentration of selenium will increase if Canada exercises the right to divert 1.5-million-acre feet of water from the Kootenai to the Columbia River at Canal Flats. That right is granted through CRT Article 13. In an average year, the maximum diversion allowed would remove 26 percent of fresh water from Lake Koocanusa and eliminate 26 percent of the flow through Libby Dam. Too often, emotional selenium discussions fail to mention the right to divert water, and the related impact.

Currently the treaty is being renegotiated in a “Modernization Process.” Now is the time to remove Article 13 from the Modernized CRT. Local officials have asked for this, and it was included in Senate Joint Resolution 12 passed by the 2019 Legislature. A group of legislators presented SJR 12 to the U.S. negotiating team at the town hall meeting in Kalispell on March 20.

Newspaper editors should splash this in headlines. Negotiators are meeting regularly. Don’t wait! We don’t know when negotiations may conclude. This treaty impacts Montana. Montanans can, and should, help modernize it.

A few more important points:

• There is no human danger from current levels of selenium in Lake Koocanusa. We are not close to reaching a dangerous point for swimmers, fishermen or anyone drinking lake water. There may be a problem with reproduction in some fish, especially bottom feeders. Studies are ongoing.

• Exaggerated claims unnecessarily scare away potential visitors, making another negative impact on a county that struggles economically. I have seen frightening fish photos circulated in a flyer; then later I learned the fish was actually from Nebraska. There might be some deformed fish in the streams near the mines, but I haven’t seen the fish or photos.

• Selenium in Lake Koocanusa must be taken seriously, and elimination of the right to divert water is critical. I was part of a working group, including state, federal, provincial, tribal and other stakeholders led by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to address this issue.        

• There are additional reasons to make water diversion a major ecological issue.

• Teck Coal accepts responsibility for the selenium and is using the most modern science to clean it up. In addition, Teck is experimenting with even newer cutting-edge technology that suggests a better long-term solution. Considerable time and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested.

• Shutting down the coal mines won’t eliminate selenium from the river or reservoir. Selenium leaches from rock piles created from decades of mining. There must be a long-term plan, and it must be guaranteed by our federal governments.

• Libby Dam creates the sink to slow down the river, thus allowing selenium to collect. Then the potential diversion of upstream water would increase the concentration of selenium in the sink. They are intertwined and add credence to the proposal that Montana should be compensated through a share of water storage benefits, the same as British Columbia.

• I wrote SJR 12, closely follow Columbia River Treaty renegotiations, try to keep up with selenium issues, and like to boat and fish Lake Koocanusa.

Mike Cuffe is a Republican state senator from Eureka. He was recently elected president of Pacific North West Economic Region.

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