SEATTLE — A high-stakes negotiation between the U.S. and Canadian governments is underway in Seattle this week over the future management of the Columbia River.
For 60 years, the Columbia River Treaty has guided how water from British Columbia flows downstream in Washington and Oregon, for flood control and hydropower.
Parts of that agreement expire next year. And this week’s negotiations may be the best shot yet to hammer out a deal.
If the two governments don’t agree on new terms, federal river managers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to request flood control assistance from British Columbia and agree upon a price — something for which the Corps has not yet prepared a plan, procedure or payment method.
With a deadline a year away, and a U.S. presidential election on the horizon, diplomats are meeting at the Seattle Central Library through Friday for the 18th round of treaty talks.
At odds? The amount of an annual U.S. payment to Canada for hydropower, the ability of Canada to have more control over its own dams and how much downstream flooding is acceptable. Meanwhile, unlike in the first treaty talks, Indigenous people on both sides of the border are clamoring for a seat at the table — one that Canada granted but the U.S. did not — and demanding that an updated treaty also include provisions for salmon.
The two countries began formal negotiations five years ago and remain tight-lipped about how much progress has been made on these sticking points, as well as the extent to which a treaty deal is contingent on resolving other U.S.-Canadian trade issues like over softwood lumber and electric vehicles.
But there are signs of movement. In January, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols tweeted that he anticipated a possible resolution by this summer. In March, a bipartisan effort by the Northwest’s congressional delegation prompted President Joe Biden to raise the treaty issue with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on a visit to Ottawa, six months after Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; James Risch, R-Idaho; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pressured Trudeau in a private meeting. U.S. chief negotiator Jill Smail said in April that she expected talks could conclude by June, as first reported in Capital Press.
And as negotiations return to the Northwest for only the third time, there is a hefty bargaining chip on the table brokered by Cantwell: $1 billion in upgrades to transmission capacity between Canada and the U.S. that would facilitate BC Hydro’s lucrative sales to the U.S. market, provided the Canadian side agrees to a smaller annual payment.
With pressure mounting, analysts believe the talks have reached an inflection point.
“This is the time to do the deal,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center. “If we miss the opportunity to close in Seattle, the consequences of this stretching on get quite dire.”
Even if the two sides reach a so-called “agreement in principle” this week, the clock will continue to tick toward the September 2024 expiration of flood control arrangements. If proposed changes substantially alter the original treaty, then the deal could require the Canadian Parliament’s approval and Senate ratification.
Taming the Columbia
On a September day in 1964, Washington’s governor and senators joined U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson at the Peace Arch in Blaine for a signing ceremony to commemorate the implementation of the Columbia River Treaty. With a few pen strokes certifying the assent of both the U.S. Senate and the Canadian Parliament, the two countries began building four new dams.
By 1973, BC Hydro completed the Duncan, Arrow and Mica dams on the Columbia, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished Libby Dam on the Kootenai River, a Columbia tributary, in Montana. Combined, the dam projects displaced more than 2,000 people and inundated 13 towns and 270,000 acres of farmland and natural ecosystems — about five times the land area of Seattle.
The dams doubled reservoir capacity on the Columbia. Under the terms of the treaty, the U.S. rented 8.45 million acre-feet of water storage annually from Canada for 60 years for $64.4 million. Once-routine destructive floods along the Columbia — most notably the June 1948 flood that wiped Oregon’s second-largest city, Vanport, off the map — largely ceased.
The two countries also agreed to plan several years in advance how to optimize the dam network for flood control and power production. Since the upstream dams generate Columbia River hydropower downstream, the treaty stipulates that electricity must be shared 50/50 with Canada, the so-called Canadian Entitlement. A formula based on the plan, not how much hydropower is actually generated, determines the amount of power the U.S. sends to BC Hydro, an active player on the Western energy market that typically sells the electricity back to Washington, Oregon and California utilities at a premium.
The U.S. pegs the current value of the Canadian Entitlement at $229 million to $335 million annually. British Columbia, which puts the proceeds into its general fund, estimates its value at CA$200 million.
Over time, actual power generation has fallen well below the amount envisioned by the plan. For example, today the U.S. oversees an extensive fish and wildlife program, so some water releases through the Columbia Basin are made for the benefit of fish rather than because of optimal power production.
U.S. utility managers argue that the imbalance between optimal and actual power generation results in a 90% overpayment of the Canadian Entitlement, sending electricity to Canada that the federal Bonneville Power Administration could otherwise use for its biggest customers — including Puget Sound utilities like Seattle City Light, Snohomish PUD and Tacoma Power — or sell to power-hungry neighbors like California, who rely on out-of-state electricity to avert blackouts during peak demand periods.
“We’re giving Canada a giant power plant’s worth of output every year,” said Scott Simms, chair of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, an umbrella of 79 Northwestern utilities calling for a vast reduction in the payment. “It might be transactionally easier to push wheelbarrows of cash up and dump them at the Canadian border.”
For its part, British Columbia argues that the Canadian Entitlement’s value is more than justified by the billions of dollars in U.S. property damage averted through flood control and the provision of vital water for fish, recreation and irrigation during periods of low river flow like winter cold snaps and summer heat waves.
For tribes ignored by the original treaty framers, the opening of Columbia River Treaty talks was initially seen as a prime opportunity to right historical wrongs, like the construction of Chief Joseph Dam in northeast Washington that halted all salmon runs farther upstream.
Fifteen U.S. tribes and 17 Canadian First Nations participated in treaty reviews on both sides of the border in the 2010s. They have pushed for the treaty to designate so-called “ecosystem function” as equally important to flood control and power generation with the hope that enshrining such language would create more legal leverage for dam releases when juvenile salmon are swimming downstream during years of low spring and early summer snowmelt.
“Protection of the ecosystem is a high priority for this Administration,” a State Department spokesperson wrote via email. “We are seeking ways to enhance our environmental coordination with Canada through the Treaty regime, including flows for salmon migration.”
Canada, led by its Denver Consul General Sylvain Fabi, has already taken concrete steps to address the treaty’s impact on its Indigenous constituents. In June, the B.C. government announced agreements to share 5% of the Canadian Entitlement with each of the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc and Syilx Okanagan nations. Representatives from those three First Nations also serve as observers on the Canadian negotiating team, a move that Canada undertook in 2019 as part of its national reconciliation policy as well as its obligations under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
By contrast, the U.S. has designated Indigenous expert advisers but not appointed tribal members to the negotiating team.
“The Columbia Basin Tribes have not been as involved in the negotiations as we expected, nor as involved as we asked,” wrote Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chair Corinne Sams in an email.