In Our View: Treaty Needs Our Attention

50 years after Columbia River compact was approved, revisions are crucial

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When 26 Congressional representatives from four states can reach bipartisan agreement on something, President Obama would be wise to take notice. Such is the case with the Columbia River Treaty, a compact that has served the Northwest and British Columbia quite well for 50 years.

Originally signed by President Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on Jan. 17, 1961, then ratified in 1964, the agreement has called for Canada to provide flood protection for the lower reaches of the Columbia in exchange for hydroelectric power. The compact has been key to successful management of 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, but some are raising questions about its continued efficacy.

The original agreement allowed for either nation, beginning in 2014, to provide 10 years’ notice to alter the agreement or opt out of it entirely, and that is what has drawn the attention of lawmakers. Led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.; and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., all legislators from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana signed a letter urging President Obama to make the treaty a priority. “It is essential that the administration now advance this work through discussions with Canada to ensure that a post-2024 treaty better reflects the interest of our constituents in the region and the United States as a whole,” read the letter.

Therein lies the problem — namely that the interests of constituents have changed over the past 50 years. When the Columbia River Treaty was signed, the thinking was that gas-fired electrical generation and nuclear power would be dominant by now. But, as we like to say in Washington, whoops!

Hydroelectric power still reigns supreme in this part of the continent, and Canada receives $250 million to $350 million worth of power each year — a provision known as the Canadian Entitlement. Late last year, Clark Public Utilities CEO Wayne Nelson stressed that recalibrating that provision should be “the single most important objective” in efforts to revise the treaty.

That could serve as a harbinger of contentious negotiations. A coalition of 85 Northwest utilities has opined that the United States sends too much power to the north, and a regional recommendation led by the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has called for ecosystem goals to be included in a revamped agreement.

Certainly, any future water treaty should reflect modern realities. The past five decades have seen vast changes regarding environmental regulations and issues surrounding salmon habitat and protection. Those years also have seen an expansion in Americans’ overarching capacity for stifling bureaucracy, as the U.S. review of the compact has involved four states, 11 federal agencies and 15 Native American tribes. Add that to the United States’ penchant for ignoring Canadian sensibilities in refusing to make a decision on the Keystone Pipeline and the energy/environmental equations get a little stickier.

Still, the Columbia River Treaty has been essential to the Northwest. With Canada using reservoirs to help manage floodwaters when necessary, the deal has provided long-term economic benefits, and U.S. officials should be wary of any changes. As Lance Dickey of The Seattle Times wrote, “One massive flood and any annual savings look ridiculous.” Congressional members from both sides of the aisle might agree.