More than a year has passed since U.S. and Canadian officials sat down to discuss the Columbia River Treaty. That is far too long for ignoring an agreement that has vast economic and environmental implications throughout the Northwest.
The treaty, which went into effect in 1964, is a pact between the nations to help regulate flood mitigation and hydropower production throughout the Columbia River basin. Its importance is exemplified by the fact that the basin is roughly the size of Texas, stretching from Canada into parts of Nevada while covering most of Washington.
After more than a half-century, the Columbia River Treaty is in need of updating. Growing concerns about climate change, salmon survival and evolving economic issues call for both nations to make the treaty a priority.
In a recent letter to the Biden administration, 21 Northwest lawmakers — including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground — wrote: “We stress the need for a top-level White House led strategy for the Treaty negotiations, as well as regular substantive updates to Members of Congress on the status of negotiations and estimated funding needs.”
Creation of the treaty was spurred, in part, by a Columbia River flood in 1948 that wiped out Vanport, which at the time was Oregon’s second-largest city. The pact called for the construction of four dams and the creation of accompanying reservoirs — three in Canada and one in Montana.
Since then, the dams have helped control streamflow along the Columbia River while also producing hydroelectricity. In exchange, a provision requires the United States to send cash to Canada, along with half the power generated downstream. The “Canadian Entitlement” is estimated to be worth up to $335 million a year, depending on the prevailing price for electricity.
Critics have questioned the value of the Canadian Entitlement, saying it is unfair to the United States. Yet while the cost should be examined and an update negotiated, it is difficult to put a value on flood mitigation along the Columbia River.
For context: Flooding throughout the Mississippi River Basin in 2019 resulted in 12 deaths, damages of more than $12 billion, and an estimated $20 billion in economic loss. Taming the Columbia has been essential to development in Washougal, Camas, Vancouver and every city along the Great River of the West.
The U.S. portion of the Columbia River Treaty is managed jointly by the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; a 2013 report from that entity recommended adjusting water flow to improve fish passage, decreasing the treaty’s impact on tribal resources, updating flood management plans and altering the Canadian Entitlement.
Each of those still requires examination, along with additional provisos related to climate change and its long-term impact on water levels. But it is essential that the U.S. and Canada find common ground.
As Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said: “We want to get to a good deal as quickly as possible for our economy and families across the Pacific Northwest. I hope and expect the Biden administration will work with tribes and stakeholders to quickly reach a comprehensive renegotiation of the treaty.”
Officials from the two countries held five rounds of talks between May 2018 and June 2020; since then, negotiations have been nonexistent. Discussions should resume soon to allow for an important treaty to meet current realities and mutually benefit the people of the Northwest and our Canadian neighbors.