Draft plan calls for revised Columbia treaty

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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American officials reviewing the decades-old treaty that shapes the management of the Columbia River in the U.S. and Canada have recommended modernizing its scope to include ecological issues and climate change, according to a draft document released Friday.

The plan also calls for a recalibration of the agreement that sends huge amounts of hydroelectric power to Canada each year — a change that could affect ratepayers in the Northwest and beyond.

The original Columbia River Treaty was finalized in 1964 — primarily for the purpose of managing hydroelectric power generation and flood control on the river, 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 milestone in 2014, the first date either country can give 10 years' notice to change the treaty or opt out entirely.

The outcome carries big implications for communities across the entire Columbia watershed, said Matt Rea, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program manager involved in the review — including Southwest Washington.

"We used to describe the Columbia Treaty as the most important economic driver in the Northwest that nobody has ever heard of," Rea said. "I think that's changing."

The Army Corps is one of two agencies leading the U.S. delegation in the review, along with the Bonneville Power Administration. Canada has begun its own review process but hasn't released a draft recommendation like the U.S. version detailed Friday, Rea said.

The document proposes to put ecosystem functions as a third pillar in the treaty along with power generation and flood control. That means formalizing efforts to manage river flows, water quality, cultural and societal benefits of healthy fish and wildlife, including flow levels to aid fish migration, according to BPA. The recommendation also aims to give the treaty flexibility to address climate change and changing water supply needs in the future.

Existing agreements between the two nations already address those topics to some extent, Rea said. But ecological success isn't always easy to measure, he added.

"It is very difficult to quantify," Rea said "We don't put it in dollars and cents like we do with hydropower, where there's a very defined market."

Among the parties now involved in the treaty review are the Northwest's native tribes. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission welcomed the environmental emphasis in Friday's recommendation.

"For the past 50 years, the region has tried to optimize hydropower and flood control without consideration of the ecosystem. That has failed," CRITFC Executive Director Paul Lumley, a citizen of the Yakama Nation, said in a released statement. "The time to redefine the future of the Columbia River is now."

'International model'

The original treaty vastly increased the amount of reservoir storage capacity on the upper Columbia River, mainly in Canada. That allowed regulators to better control flow levels and maximize power generation at hydroelectric facilities primarily in the U.S.

In exchange, the U.S. agreed to pay Canada $64 million for flood control. It also sends electricity across the border -- known as the "Canadian Entitlement" -- now valued at $250 million to $350 million each year, according to BPA. That's led to a recognition among American officials that the U.S. is "overpaying" under the current arrangement, Rea said.

Even as they push to revise the treaty, agencies involved continue to hold it up as an example of collaboration between two nations. That feeling hasn't changed, said BPA spokesman Mike Hansen.

"This treaty has been a model for international water management, and we have a very positive relationship with Canada," Hansen said.

Officials will accept public comment on the review through Oct. 25. Among a series of public meetings is a tentative gathering in Portland on Oct. 16, though not all details have been confirmed, according to the Army Corps.

Regional players will send their final recommendation to the U.S. Department of State by December. Federal leaders will then decide whether to enter into negotiations with their Canadian counterparts and ultimately pursue an update to the treaty.


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.