When a major flood swelled the Columbia River and inundated parts of Vancouver in early 1996, it wasn't just local barriers and sandbags that kept a bad situation from becoming worse.
It was also Canada.
Hundreds of miles upstream in British Columbia, Hugh Keenleyside Dam held back additional water before it could make its way down through Washington and Oregon. Canadian managers had been put on notice by their U.S. counterparts that they needed help; the two countries worked together to contain one of biggest Northwest flooding events of the last century.
"That's not something people see," said Amy Echols, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland. "There's a lot that can happen in this big system."
Keenleyside is one of three Canadian dams, along with a fourth in northwest Montana, that were built as a result of the Columbia River Treaty — a sweeping agreement finalized in the 1960s to manage flood control and hydroelectric power generation on the river.
But as a milestone in the agreement approaches, both nations are taking a renewed look at the treaty. On the U.S. side, the review has revealed some political and cultural fault lines in the Northwest as a host of players seek common ground. Those involved say the outcome could carry big implications for residents of Clark County and Southwest Washington, their property and their pocketbooks.
In 1996, the Columbia River still climbed far past flood stage in Vancouver and elsewhere. But the storage capacity in Canada provided some relief for other waterways emptying into the Columbia, Echols said. That included Oregon's Willamette River, which caused some of the region's worst damage and just missed topping a seawall in downtown Portland before subsiding.
"A phone call to Canada is what helped us reduce the flow," Echols said.
The treaty added more than 20 million acre-feet of new reservoir storage in the basin, most of that in Canada. It also sends huge amounts of U.S.-generated hydropower north of the border each year.
Matt Rea, a program manager with the Army Corps, has called the Columbia River Treaty "the most important economic driver in the Northwest that nobody has ever heard of."
With a possible update looming, that's changing.
Focus on ecosystem, power
Ask the average Clark County resident what the Columbia River Treaty means to him or her, and you might get a puzzled response. Ask Scott Corwin, and he'll tell you that anyone who pays a utility bill or lives in a flood plain should pay attention.
"You should care because it will impact your monthly power bill, and it could be significant," said Corwin, executive director of the Portland-based Public Power Council.
The push to rewrite the treaty has expanded the conversation beyond floods and electricity, beyond dollars and cents. Talks have also included how the river's ecosystem functions, lives and breathes — topics that weren't addressed in the original agreement.
Both nations highlighted ecological issues and climate change in draft recommendations released last month. The Canadian recommendation is scant on details. But for the U.S., that means formalizing efforts to manage river flows, water quality, and cultural and societal benefits of healthy fish and wildlife, including flow levels to aid fish migration, according to the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the agencies leading the treaty review on this side of the border.
The original Columbia River Treaty was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961. It was ratified in 1964.
The primary purpose of the treaty was managing power and flood control on the river system, which originates in British Columbia before flowing through the Pacific Northwest and emptying into the Pacific Ocean at the Washington-Oregon border. The treaty has no end date. But officials in both nations are reviewing the document ahead of a key date in 2014, the first year either country can give 10 years' notice to change the treaty or opt out entirely.
Much of the focus has centered on the so-called "Canadian entitlement." That's the provision requiring the U.S. to send a defined amount of electricity to Canada, now valued at $250 million to $350 million annually. The U.S. also made an initial payment of $64 million in exchange for better-controlled flow levels that maximize power generation at hydroelectric facilities primarily in the U.S.
The arrangement has led many on the U.S. side to suggest we're overpaying. But Canada has suggested just the opposite: In its draft recommendation, officials said the entitlement "does not account for the full range of benefits in the United States or the impacts in British Columbia."
That's where the impact to ratepayers comes in, Corwin said. If the Canadian entitlement is changed, the ripple effect could reach local utilities and their customers, he said.
"To ratepayers, it means sending a lot of low-cost, clean hydropower to British Columbia instead of keeping it in the Northwest, which means higher electricity rates and the need to use other sources of energy for that portion instead," Corwin said.
Reducing the entitlement could put money back into people's pockets in the form of lower electricity costs, he said. But if the entitlement swings the other way, the opposite could be true.
Clark Public Utilities, a member of the Public Power Council, echoed those sentiments. In a letter last month, utility CEO and General Manager Wayne Nelson said recalibrating the Canadian entitlement should be "the single most important objective" in the treaty revision effort.
As local leaders gathered to discuss the treaty during a meeting last month, they did so against a backdrop of political acrimony at the federal level.
Representatives from a wide range of agencies and organizations gathered in a Northeast Portland office building on what turned out to be the final day of October's government shutdown. People in the room talked about consensus and collaboration. Down the hall, shuttered federal offices offered a visual reminder of dysfunction elsewhere.
The setting underscored a point recently made by Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. If Northwest players don't find common ground among themselves, he said, U.S. diplomats won't be interested in negotiating a revised treaty with Canada on their behalf.
"It's not going to take much to scare away the State Department," Lumley said.
That means unity, without any one party trying to undermine the process, he said.
"The only way this will work is if not only do we all reach agreement by the end of the year, but that it's a sustained agreement over time," Lumley said. "It's going to have to be a sustained partnership."
A U.S. Sovereign Review Team began meeting on the treaty in 2010. But it hasn't quite reached full consensus yet, said Lumley, who sits on the review team. The committee includes a wide range of voices, including Northwest tribal members, officials from several federal agencies, and representatives of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Not surprisingly, the process has revealed some differences in perception. That includes how the original treaty itself is viewed.
"I cringe when I hear people say that this is held up as some model of international cooperation on a water treaty," Lumley said. "It might have been successful for some people, but for other people, it's devastating."
The original treaty largely left native voices out of the conversation, said Lumley, a member of the Yakama Nation. The reservoirs created by treaty dams had a profound impact on many communities, he said. And operating an agreement without consideration for the ecosystem is an approach that has failed, and must be updated, Lumley said.
"I view this as an environmental justice issue," he said. "There's been an environmental injustice that needs to be addressed."
The treaty review offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore the river to something closer to its normal function, and restore fish runs in the process, Lumley said. Doing so would be a benefit to more than just tribes, he said.
Some people think of salmon as a cultural issue for native populations. That's true. But there's a lot more to it than that, Lumley said. Boosting salmon runs means a boost to fisheries, local businesses on the river and others, he said.
"Salmon support an economy," Lumley said. "There's a connection here to the Pacific Northwest that goes beyond the abstract."
Less clear is what will or will not fall within the purview of the Columbia River Treaty review. Some comments have called for the restoration of Celilo Falls, which were submerged and silenced when The Dalles Dam was built decades ago. But that's seen as a domestic issue, not likely to come up in an international treaty.
Others have supported restoring fish passage above Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington, which eliminated salmon migration into British Columbia long before the treaty was signed. Doing so would require watershed work on both sides of the border to be viable, said Rea of the Army Corps. But Canada, for its part, said it considers Grand Coulee to be "not a treaty issue."
No 'home run'
Publicly, Canada has kept its cards close to the vest. Its draft treaty recommendation is only three pages, laying out a list of guiding principles.
Players in both countries acknowledge that Canada may have a less complicated process to work through than the United States. Canada's government has largely given the lead to British Columbia. The U.S. effort, by contrast, involves four states and a cadre of federal agencies.
The U.S. entity in charge of treaty implementation is technically only two people: BPA Acting Administrator Elliot Mainzer, and Brigadier Gen. John Kem of the U.S. Army Corps' Northwestern Division. But as in Canada, a stable of support staff are carrying out the treaty and its review.
Both countries hope to have a final recommendation by the end of this year. After that, the U.S. State Department and Canada will engage in possible negotiations. The soonest anything could change is 2024.
Outright termination of the treaty doesn't appear likely. Both nations have said they'd like to continue the agreement at least in some form.
During last month's meeting in Portland, Army Corps Program Manager Dave Ponganis tempered the expectations of any party hoping to get everything they want out of a new Columbia River Treaty. The goal is consensus, he said, and it's going to be tough road.
"There's not going to be a home run for anyone," Ponganis said. "You're going to have to have singles for everybody."