In Our View: Stop Delaying River Treaty

Administration must make updating Columbia pact with Canada a priority

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It is an immutable fact of politics that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s just that those of us in the Northwest sometimes need to squeak a little louder in order to be heard.

So it is that the entire congressional delegations from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana have signed a letter urging the Obama administration to begin negotiations with Canada to update the Columbia River Treaty. If this sounds familiar, that is because the delegations sent a letter last year — and the need for another letter should indicate just how much weight last year’s missive carried.

At issue is a 50-year-old treaty that has served both countries well but is in need of an update. Originally signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961 — three days before Eisenhower left office — then ratified on Sept. 16, 1964, the Columbia River Treaty has called for Canada to provide flood protection for the lower reaches of the river in exchange for hydroelectric power. The compact has been crucial in successfully managing the 1,240-mile waterway that begins in Canada, winds its way through the Northwest, passes Vancouver’s doorstep, and empties into the Pacific Ocean.

The treaty governs operations of hydroelectric dams along the Columbia and the management of reservoirs along the river in Canada. It has no expiration date, but either country can cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years’ notice. “Given the 2024 deadline for certain aspects of the treaty, we … urge you to initiate negotiations with Canada in 2015,” lawmakers told the administration.

That might be a good idea. Considering the inevitable complexity of the negotiations, ignoring the treaty even for the short-term should not be an option. Among the primary issues is the “Canadian Entitlement,” in which operators of dams along the U.S. portion of the Columbia must send a percentage of their hydroelectric power to Canada. That is in payment for Canada constructing and operating three huge reservoirs in order to store and gradually release water, mitigating the threat of flood downriver. The value of the entitlement is estimated at $250 million to $300 million a year, and utility officials have said the agreement increases power rates for their customers. U.S. officials have said the Canadian Entitlement is excessive; Canadian officials have disagreed.

Other issues will add to the complexity of the negotiations, with environmental concerns being at the forefront. When the treaty was signed 50 years ago, there was scant attention paid to environmental concerns. Since then, issues regarding salmon preservation and changes to snowpack, snowmelt, and flood-inducing conditions have come to warrant inclusion in any updated treaty. Add to that the fact that the U.S. review of the treaty has involved four states, 11 federal agencies, and 15 Native American tribes — demonstrating Americans’ vast capacity for soul-crushing bureaucracy — and it becomes clear that the Columbia River Treaty will require time-consuming diligence and thoughtfulness.

As the letter from the congressional delegations said: “We remain concerned about … the prioritization this matter is receiving within your Administration and the Department of State.” That concern is warranted. The Columbia River Treaty has served the Northwest well, but its updating will be complex. If administration officials wish to stop hearing the squeaking from this corner of the country, they best start talking about the Columbia River Treaty.