Guest Opinions

Renewing the Columbia River Treaty: A once-in-a-generation chance to address river health

The Columbia River Treaty with Canada is critical to the health and well-being of the Northwest. The document provides the framework for hydropower production and flood control on the river, as well as irrigation, recreation and navigation. This is Wanapum Dam in Grant County, Washington.
The Columbia River Treaty with Canada is critical to the health and well-being of the Northwest. The document provides the framework for hydropower production and flood control on the river, as well as irrigation, recreation and navigation. This is Wanapum Dam in Grant County, Washington. Grant County PUD

Last week, the United States and Canada began formal negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. The 54-year-old treaty has done much good, but like many 50-year-olds, it could use some tuning up. Most important for Idaho is adding a third purpose — the health of the river — to the original treaty purposes of power production and flood management.

Six U.S. states and British Columbia are part of the Columbia Basin. Nearly all of Idaho is in it.

In 2013, the Northwest states, 15 Indian tribes and federal dam agencies agreed to a regional recommendation to guide the re-negotiation. Electric utilities, many river users, and conservation and fishing groups also endorsed it. A key plank in the recommendation is that ecosystem function – meaning the health of the river – be added as a third treaty purpose, joining power production and flood management.

How would Idaho benefit? Consider a list: Clean water. Salmon and trout. Public health. Cleaner energy. Livability and quality of life. Recreation. Wildlife. Resilience to hotter water and more erratic water conditions. Some justice for Idaho’s Native Americans. Plus economic activity, in rural and urban Idaho. A recent economic analysis commissioned by the Upper Columbia United Tribes found that ecosystem-based management of the river basin could add at least $1.5 billion to the Columbia Basin’s total economic value.

Another economic argument for Idaho embracing ecosystem function: sharing the financial responsibilities of recovering our endangered salmon and steelhead. Rivers don’t care about political boundaries, and neither do fish. The reality of warming temperatures means that Idaho’s high altitude rivers are increasingly THE refuge for these species. But blocked fish passage and water quality problems on both sides of the border endanger them further. Adding ecosystem function to the treaty means that Canada could share in the efforts to improve the state of these fish in a way it hasn’t had to before.

Unfortunately, Idaho’s Legislature recently passed a memorial declaring the treaty should not include ecosystem function. An interesting move considering that including it in the treaty would go a long way toward ensuring that Canada shares the financial burden on an issue you’d think Idaho would rather not go alone. A memorial isn’t binding, but it does enshrine this short sighted point of view for the world to see.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho holds a top oversight seat for treaty negotiations in Congress. Adding the health of the river to the Columbia River Treaty is not the only issue in these talks important to Idaho, but we hope Sen. Risch prioritizes it.

Making the health of the river a treaty purpose is not an attack on power production or flood management. Rather, it recognizes that river health is of the same value for us today. It took a few years, 50 years ago, to learn how to integrate and optimize power production and flood control under the treaty, but it worked for both. There is every reason to believe the same will happen once this third purpose is added.

Marie Callaway Kellner water associate for the Idaho Conservation League.

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