Environment

Lawmakers Seek Progress on Columbia River Treaty

The 60-year-old treaty governs how the United States and Canada share the waters of the Columbia River Basin

By Associated Press
The Kootenai River west of Libby on April 7, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

SPOKANE, Wash. – A bipartisan group of 21 Northwest lawmakers called on President Joe Biden to prioritize a long-running effort to renegotiate a 60-year-old treaty that governs how the United States and Canada share the waters of the Columbia River Basin.

In a Tuesday letter to Biden, Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio led the group urging the president to update the Columbia River Treaty.

The Spokesman-Review reported efforts to revise the treaty, which was signed in 1961, began in 2013 amid concerns over salmon runs, flood risk and electricity the U.S. sends to Canada under the accord.

“Modernizing this treaty is critically important to protecting our region from flood control risks and ensuring we can continue to lead with clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable hydropower,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.

The treaty, which took more than 20 years to negotiate, came together after a 1948 flood washed away what once was Oregon’s second-biggest city, Vanport. It provided for the construction of one dam in Montana and three in British Columbia, completed between 1968 and 1973, that together more than doubled the amount of reservoir storage in the basin, providing benefits for both flood prevention and generating power.

Most of the treaty’s provisions don’t have an expiration date, but half a century after its signing, changing conditions spurred an effort to modernize it. The Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers — which together form the U.S. entity responsible for the agreement — began a review of the deal in 2011 and recommended a series of changes to the State Department in 2013.

The recommendations included letting more water flow through the dams in spring and summer to improve fish passage, decreasing the treaty’s impact on tribal resources and updating flood management plans. The BPA and Army Corps of Engineers also recommended changing a provision known as “the Canadian Entitlement,” which requires the U.S. to send cash and half of power generated downstream to Canada in exchange for the water resources.

The BPA and Army Corps of Engineers have estimated the value of the Canadian Entitlement to be between $229 million and $335 million a year, contending the current treaty gives the U.S. a raw deal. Canadian negotiators have argued the current entitlement is fair. Either country can terminate the treaty with 10 years’ notice, but neither has done so.

The letter was signed by lawmakers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

A State Department spokesperson said Friday the agency doesn’t comment on congressional correspondence but promised to consult with lawmakers on the treaty.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.