In Pacific Northwest history, the catastrophic Columbia River flooding of 1948 looms as large as the 1962 Columbus Day Storm or the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. A repetition would devastate communities up and down the Great River of the West and its major tributaries, and deal a major blow to agriculture and salmon.
In other words, an annual cost of $150 million to $300 million for preventing a catastrophic flood might seem like a bargain. Because of that, flood mitigation must be the focal point of negotiations between the United States and Canada to renew the Columbia River Treaty.
The treaty has governed flood management and hydropower production throughout the Columbia River basin since the mid-1960s. Three reservoirs in Canada and one in Montana hold back water during the spring flood season, and that water is released later in the year.
In exchange, Canada is compensated for 50 percent of the released water’s potential hydropower production as it moves through U.S. dams along the Columbia River system — known as the Canadian Entitlement.
That is where the figure of up to $300 million a year comes into play. Depending upon market prices, the power is worth that much, and the numbers provide one of the sticking points in ongoing negotiations.
As The Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune reported recently: “The U.S. believes the formula that decides the power value of Canadian water is outdated. Because the formula doesn’t account for things like how much of the Canadian water is spilled at U.S. dams to improve fish passage, American hydropower interests say the power payments sent to Canada are as much as 10 times what they are actually worth. U.S. interests want the treaty changed to reflect that actual value of the Canadian water.”
There are other issues, as well. Starting in 2024, Canadian dams will not be required to provide flood control unless the United States demonstrates it has reduced flood risk with its own reservoirs, which would alter how Northwest dams are managed. And there is talk about ecosystems and the restoration of salmon runs.
For the United States, the most important issues are avoiding the 2024 change to the flood-control guidelines and reducing the cost of the Canadian Entitlement. Meanwhile, changes to ecosystem regulations could face opposition in the Senate, which will have to ratify any new treaty.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said any plans to increase water flow for the benefit of fish or to reintroduce salmon to certain areas will not receive consideration.
It is no wonder that treaty negotiations are complicated. The Columbia River basin is roughly the size of Texas, affecting Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and Alberta while even stretching into Nevada and Wyoming. That inevitably creates numerous interconnected issues.
Parties from the United States and Canada have held five rounds of talks, with the next one scheduled for April 10-11 in British Columbia. Along the way, common ground must be cultivated. The treaty has served both nations well, and flood control beginning near the headwaters of the river is particularly important for Washington.
So, while the cost of maintaining the Columbia River Treaty could be high, the cost of allowing the deal to lapse would be even greater.