The way dams and storage reservoirs on the Columbia River and its tributaries are managed could change dramatically in a short five years if negotiators from the United States and Canada don’t strike a deal.
At issue is the Columbia River Treaty, a transboundary agreement that has governed flood risk management and hydropower production for more than five decades. The treaty is evergreen, meaning it doesn’t have an end date unless either nation decides to sever the agreement following a 10-year notice. Neither side has given that notice, but both are engaged in talks led by the U.S. State Department and Global Affairs Canada aimed at updating the treaty.
Under the current terms, the way flood risk is managed changes dramatically in 2024, and that could affect Idaho water. Right now, three huge storage reservoirs in Canada and one in Montana do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to reducing flood risk in places like Portland and Vancouver, Wash. The treaty was precipitated in part by the 1948 Vanport Flood near Portland, Ore., that killed 15 people and displaced more than 18,000 who lived in a low-lying development.
The dams are managed jointly by the U.S. and Canada, and the treaty dictates that reservoirs behind Mica, Arrow and Duncan dams in British Columbia are drafted to hold back more than 15 million acre-feet of water during spring floods.
The water captured by the dams is released later in the year, and Canada is compensated for 50 percent of the released water’s potential hydropower production as it moves downstream through U.S. dams.
Starting in 2024, the Canadian dams will no longer be obligated to provide downstream flood control protection unless the United States first demonstrates it has done all it can to reduce flood risk by capturing spring flows in its reservoirs. Once that happens, the U.S. can “call upon” Canada to capture water behind its dams.
Under such a scenario, reservoirs in the U.S. would likely be drawn down much lower than they are now prior to spring runoff, threatening the potential for them to refill. And it’s not clear which U.S. dams would have to participate.
The U.S. believes its large storage dams named in the treaty — Libby, Hungry Horse and Kerr in Montana; Dworshak, Brownlee and Albeni Falls in Idaho; Grand Coulee in Washington and John Day Dam in Oregon — would have to be tapped to provide additional flood control. Canada interprets the treaty to say all dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries south of the border would have to play a bigger role in flood control. Under that scenario, dozens of other dams and reservoirs would be involved. For example, dams that provide local flood control or capture water for summer irrigation may have to help in systemwide flood control.
Nor do the two sides agree on what constitutes a flood large enough for the U.S. to “call upon” Canada for help. The U.S. side believes flows projected to reach 450,000 cubic feet per second at The Dalles Dam in Oregon would meet the requirement. Canada believes projected flows would have to reach 600,000 cubic feet per second.
The value of water
The flood control regime isn’t the only difference negotiators are trying to bridge. The treaty gives Canada the right to half of the hydropower that can be produced in the U.S. by the water the Canadian dams hold back and then ultimately release — known as the Canadian entitlement. Depending on market prices, the power can be worth $150 million to $300 million per year. Those power payments, plus 30 years of hydropower purchased by U.S. companies at the onset of the treaty, paid for the construction of the dams in Canada.
But 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.
“It’s one of those aspects of the treaty that really calls out for modernization,” said Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council at Portland. “The assumptions that went into the formula that created the downstream power-benefit sharing have become outdated over time. It’s a lot of power off the federal side of the system that is sent to Canada, and it’s a lot of value to ratepayers of the U.S. that we think should accrue to citizens.”
Canadians also have identified issues they want to solve in negotiations. The dams have dramatically altered local ecosystems and inundated communities and valuable bottomland behind the dams. The Canadians think they should be compensated for that. When Canadian dams are drawn down, water levels fluctuate dramatically, disrupting recreation, fish and wildlife habitat and exposing huge mud flats that can produce dust storms. The construction of Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam prior to the treaty, which Canada did not object to at the time, blocked salmon that once returned to British Columbia rivers, harming Canada’s First Nations. They want fish passage and salmon reintroduction to be considered. The Canadians also say their dams allowed lucrative floodplain development around Portland. They would like compensation for that service.
The Canadian government wants to retain the post-2024 flood control regime that alleviates pressure on its dams and reservoirs. They also want more say in the way Libby Dam in Montana is managed. The dam backs up the Kootenay River more than 40 miles into Canada and creates Lake Koocanusa. (The river is spelled Kootenai in the U.S. and Kootenay in Canada.)
Talks between the two countries began last May. Those talks are centered on the future of flood control, hydropower generation and ecosystem function, which would be a new aim of the treaty. Several years before negotiations began, the U.S. held domestic talks involving Northwest states, 15 American Indian tribes in the Columbia Basin and hydropower and agricultural interests, to develop goals for treaty modernization.
The tribes on both sides of the border wanted a seat at the negotiating table, but the countries chose to exclude them in favor of small teams.
“The tribes were left out of that conversation in the original treaty,” said Scott Hauser, executive director of the Upper Snake River Tribes Foundation. “We feel it’s absolutely imperative they are part of it this time.”
At the outset, the U.S. is seeking two big goals. First, it wants to avoid the 2024 change in flood control regime. Next, it wants to update the way the Canadian entitlement is calculated. The U.S. also wants ecosystem functions be incorporated in river management. The region spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually in efforts to mitigate effects of the dams on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
Idaho’s Sen. Jim Risch sits in a power position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the two countries reach an agreement, the updated treaty must be ratified by the Senate. It’s up to Risch to introduce the new treaty if and when it’s complete.
Risch told the Tribune he intends to flex his legislative muscle.
“The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee decides if it’s going to be heard or not,” he said. “So it’s going to be a good deal for Idaho, or it’s going to be no deal at all.”
He insists the treaty should only cover flood control and hydropower production. If it includes ecosystem function or anything that might threaten Idaho’s sovereignty over its water, Risch said he won’t let the treaty be debated. In fact, he said adding ecosystem function is dead on arrival. That means no more flows for fish and no reintroduction of salmon in places they aren’t now.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “The third one (ecosystem function) is not in there now, and it’s not going to be added. The reason I say that is I believe we would — I think almost certainly — end up on the short end of the stick.”
He said he has a chummy relationship with President Donald J. Trump and has spoken to him about the treaty. Risch also has constituents in Idaho urging him to use his position to exclude ecosystem functions. The Idaho Legislature passed a nonbinding House Joint Memorial in 2014 saying an updated treaty must protect state sovereignty over water.
A group of more than 20 water users, from public power companies like Clearwater Power and Idaho County Light to southern Idaho irrigators and navigation interests like the Port of Lewiston, want the updated treaty to exclude ecosystem function.
“It just creates another piece of red tape, another legal hurdle to operate the system,” said Paul Arrington, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association. “Both countries have laws and regulations to deal with these issues, and it should remain as such.”
Even others who want ecosystem function added said they agree with Risch on the need to protect Idaho’s water. For example, the Nez Perce Tribe, the state of Idaho and the federal government are parties to the Nez Perce Agreement that helped settle hundreds of water rights disputes in the state. Part of that agreement calls for the state to send 427,000 acre-feet of upper Snake River water downstream each year to help migrating salmon and steelhead.
“I share his concerns on Idaho’s water,” said Jaime Pinkham, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. “Years ago I was part of the (Snake River Basin Adjudication.) We worked long and hard with a diversity of interests to bring some peace to the issue. I am as sensitive as he is in protecting the agreement.”
Pinkham said that doesn’t mean ecosystem function shouldn’t be on the table. He said the talks could still produce provisions to improve conditions for fish in the basin that are beneficial to both sides. He cites the recent agreement between states, tribes and the federal government that will spill more water at Snake and Columbia river dams yet allow hydropower production part of the time as an example of creative solutions that are possible.
“Those are great solutions that help the energy sector and help fish, and if we can find the same kind of creative options in the Columbia River Treaty I want us to stay open to that,” Pinkham said.
Canada might seem to be in a position of power. The U.S. wants to maintain the current flood control regime and yet pay its neighbor less for the water it holds during spring runoff.
But Canada may have difficulty fully flexing its muscle. Jim Heffernan, a policy analyst at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said Canada also wants to protect its own downstream communities from flood, which may require it to hold back much of the spring flows even before the U.S. asks it to. In addition, he said Canada’s hydropower system was constructed to operate on the regime in place for more than 50 years. That means the country would likely have to run the system in much the same way it does now to maximize its power production.
“Because of the way they built their system, they have to operate it the way they do now,” Heffernan said. “To hurt us they have to hurt themselves.”
Canada also benefits from the water spilled at U.S. dams to help salmon. Heffernan said both sockeye and spring chinook returning to the Okanogan River in Canada have improved because of fish-friendly management of U.S. dams. If salmon were reintroduced above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams so they could recolonize rivers in British Columbia, Heffernan said those runs, too, would benefit from spill at U.S. dams.
“Sockeye salmon and spring chinook returning to the Okanogan watershed in Canada are currently benefiting from changes we made to the system for U.S. stocks,” he said. “That is a really important point, because they gloss over that.”
A chance to restore balance
Many see a moral reason to include ecosystem function. John Osborn, an environmental activist and physician at Vashon Island, Wash., said the treaty negotiations are a chance to right wrongs to American Indian tribes and Canadian First Nations — and to the environment. He said negotations should address fish passage and salmon reintroduction, climate change, reconnecting rivers to their flood plains and better sharing the benefits and burdens of the dams and reservoirs.
“We are truly blessed to live on one of the most remarkable river systems in the world,” Osborn said. “I think it asks us to look at what has happened in really the short amount of time since Lewis and Clark — the profound changes that have benefited some, perhaps many, but come at wrenching costs — and we find a way to bring balance back to the system, and we build reserves. That is going to be absolutely critical in the time of climate change.”
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