As Francisco Palmieri of the U.S. State Department put it, “Good treaties make good neighbors.”
Palmieri was writing in advance of negotiations regarding the Columbia River Treaty, and his assessment effectively distilled the importance of the agreement. In working to update the 54-year-old treaty between the United States and Canada, officials are helping to define the economy and the environment of the Northwest for future generations.
The Columbia River Treaty helps govern hydroelectric power throughout the region, the future of salmon runs, flood management, irrigation for agriculture, and other issues that impact the daily lives of residents. As Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said: “The Columbia River Treaty is integral to so much of the Pacific Northwest way of life — from our economy to our environment to our culture and heritage — so it’s hard to overstate the importance of updating this treaty to meet modern-day issues.”
The fact that U.S. representatives are turning attention to the treaty is encouraging. As far back as 2015, The Columbian noted editorially 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 that remaking the treaty will “require time-consuming diligence and thoughtfulness.” Still, the Obama administration ignored the importance of the treaty despite pressure from the Northwest’s congressional delegation.
In examining an update to the agreement, which expires in 2024, negotiators must pay particular attention to the benefits of hydroelectric power throughout the region. Since taking effect in 1964, the Columbia River Treaty has helped to ensure inexpensive, reliable, clean power that has boosted the economy while adhering to the region’s environmentally conscious ethos.
The treaty led to the construction of three large British Columbia reservoirs near the headwaters of the 1,200-mile river, allowing for management of downstream river flow and flood control. In exchange, a so-called “Canadian Entitlement” annually provides Canada with $250 million to $350 million worth of hydroelectric power.
Critics claim the agreement is excessively favorable to Canada and increases electricity rates for customers in the Northwest. In 2014, Clark Public Utilities CEO Wayne Nelson deemed recalibrating the Canadian Entitlement “the single most important objective” of negotiations. While the entitlement will be an important part of the talks, it should be noted that a large flood along the Columbia would make $250 million a year seem like a bargain. It is difficult to place a dollar amount on the value of flood control along the Columbia, and it is worth noting that the devastating Vanport flood of 1948 provided some of the impetus for the treaty in the first place.
Meanwhile, several issues have been altered since the original treaty. Foremost among them is attention to the river’s salmon run and the role that dams have played in diminishing that run. John Osborn of Spokane, a member of the Columbia River Roundtable, told The Associated Press, “We need to rethink dam management to improve river health and restore salmon runs while protecting communities.”
Those are, indeed, integral parts of the Columbia River Treaty, which amounts to a complex jigsaw puzzle designed to benefit nearly 20 million residents. Ideally, with negotiations on an updated treaty, the Northwest and British Columbia can continue to be good neighbors.