As anniversaries go, tradition says a gift of gold was warranted. After all, the union between the United States and Canada, as spelled out in the Columbia River Treaty, turned 50 last week.
That might have been a cause for celebration, yet both parties remained largely silent as they ponder the future of a partnership that has helped define the Columbia River for a half-century. Originally signed by President Eisenhower and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961, 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 to successful management of 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.
But there’s no telling how much longer the deal will be in place. In addition to marking the treaty’s 50th anniversary, last week doubled as the first time that either party could give 10 years’ notice of a desire to cancel or modify the agreement. And it is, indeed, time to modify the treaty.
Most likely to be an issue during negotiations 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 the north. That is in payment for Canada constructing three huge reservoirs in order to store and gradually release water, and the value of the power transfers is estimated at between $250 million and $300 million annually.
Officials from U.S. utilities have asserted that the Canadian Entitlement is excessive, and Clark Public Utilities CEO Wayne Nelson has said in the past that recalibrating the entitlement should be “the single most important objective” in efforts to revise the treaty. Utility officials say sending power to Canada increases rates for customers throughout the Northwest. Canadian officials, predictably, say the entitlement is not excessive, arguing that the flood controls have greatly aided the economy in the region — for example, by providing irrigation water that allows for crops to be grown in arid Eastern Washington.
Yet while the Canadian Entitlement will be an important negotiating point, several other aspects might prove to be equally crucial. The world is vastly different from when the Columbia River Treaty was first put in place 50 years ago, making for a more complex document. For example, the U.S. review of the agreement has involved representatives from four states, 15 tribes and 10 federal agencies. It also has elicited attention from all 26 of the region’s congressional members, who have urged the Obama Administration to make the treaty a priority.
Any revamped Columbia River Treaty must acknowledge modern realities. Unlike 50 years ago, the compact now must give consideration to ecosystem management; to the future of wild salmon and other animals; to water quality and water temperatures; to traditional tribal fisheries; and to environmental alterations brought about by climate change.
But while such complexity might appear daunting, it is crucial that an updated agreement be forged. One massive flood along the Columbia could make the $300 million Canadian Entitlement seem like pocket change, and a lack of environmental provisions in a new agreement could render the treaty more harmful than helpful. While it’s time to tweak the Columbia River Treaty, here’s to another happy 50 years.