In Our View: Treat Treaty With Care

Invaluable Columbia River compact with Canada doesn't need broad overhaul



For a half-century now, the Columbia River Treaty has proved beneficial to both the Northwest region of the United States and to British Columbia. Now, as both sides prepare for negotiations regarding a renewal of the treaty, we hope that a swift and amicable agreement can be reached.

Signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on Jan. 17, 1961, days before Eisenhower’s presidency ended, the treaty was finally ratified in 1964. The idea was to manage hydroelectric power and provide flood control for the 1,240-mile river that begins in Canada, winds its way through the Northwest, passes Vancouver’s doorstep, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. The agreement added more than 20 million acre-feet of new reservoir storage, mostly in Canada, which aids the United States in flood management, fish management, and hydroelectric dam management. In exchange, our neighbors to the north are privy to the “Canadian entitlement” — hydroelectric power that these days is estimated by U.S. officials to be worth between $250 million and $350 million annually.

The treaty has no termination date, but starting in 2014, either country may give 10 years’ notice to alter the agreement or opt out of it entirely. That has generated a sense of urgency — and a harbinger of some contentiousness in the negotiations. A coalition of 85 Northwest utilities has led a chorus saying the United States sends too much power to Canada, while Canadian officials have countered that it’s not enough.

While the crux of those differing opinions can be chalked up as the art of the negotiation, there’s no doubt that updating the Columbia River Treaty will be a more complex endeavor than the original agreement. Environmental regulations have been strengthened over the past 50 years; the issue of salmon habitat and protection has undergone vast changes; and the notion that nuclear power and gas-fired electrical generation would by now be the dominant forces in power production has been proven false. In addition, the U.S. side of the negotiations now includes representatives from four states, 15 tribes, and 10 federal agencies, serving as yet another reminder that Americans have mastered the art of progress-stifling bureaucracy.

All of this could have a profound impact on electricity rates. In a letter last month, Clark Public Utilities CEO Wayne Nelson stressed that recalibrating the Canadian entitlement should be “the single most important objective” in efforts to revise the treaty.

Maybe. But we urge officials not to let intransigence get in the way of a compact that has worked well for both nations. The treaty calls for British Columbia to use its vast reservoirs to hold back the spring runoff before releasing the water downstream at a time that is more conducive for power production. It also allows Canadian officials to hold back water flow when areas downriver are facing flood dangers — as happened in 1996. These are valuable resources for Northwest officials to have at their disposal, and U.S. officials should be cautious about playing hardball. As columnist Lance Dickey of The Seattle Times wrote, “One massive flood and any annual savings look ridiculous.”

U.S. State Department officials hope to have a regional consensus from the Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers in hand by mid-December. Then they will decide on how to proceed on negotiations with Canadian officials. Any proposed revisions to the plan should be purposeful, focused, and easily defensible. At most, the Columbia River Treaty is in need of some minor tweaks, not wholesale changes.