We, the United States, have a treaty with Canada governing the management of the Columbia River. It deals with pertinent issues — flood control, hydroelectricity, dams, water storage and sharing the costs and benefits of same. A fine treaty in its day, many say, but far past its prime, negotiated during the Eisenhower administration and ratified in 1964. Many agree, as the treaty nears the end of its run, it needs to be “modernized.”
We know what that means. In a new treaty, the analysts in the United States say, the “ecosystem-based functions” should be “elevated” to become a “primary purpose” of the treaty, on an equal footing with hydropower and flood control. We should pay attention to this, wonder what it may require of us and how much it will cost.
In September 2014 comes the opportunity for either Canada or the United States to give 10-year notice to terminate or modify the treaty. The United States Entity — the Bonneville Power Administration and Corps of Engineers — will make a recommendation to the State Department before the end of this year. The State Department will take that into negotiations with Canada, perhaps. Helping the United States Entity form its recommendation is the Sovereign Review Team, composed of the Northwest states and tribes. The SRT has been meeting, hashing and parsing for years.
On Thursday the United States Entity released a document that is “very much a draft” of the regional recommendation. As a general principle, it says, the treaty “should enable the greatest possible shared benefits” for ecosystem, hydropower and flood risk management.
For electric ratepayers, it’s a high-stakes game. The current treaty requires what is called the Canadian Entitlement. Utilities in the United States send power north to Canada to pay for the benefits of Canadian water storage, power worth $250 million to $300 million a year. About 27 percent of that comes from Chelan, Douglas and Grant PUDs’ Columbia River dams. The U.S. utilities want that entitlement reduced to reflect the actual benefits of Canadian dams, meaning it should cost us a fraction of what it does now. The draft recommendation recognizes that. “The present CRT power benefits are not equitably shared,” it says.
But, then comes the call for a “comprehensive ecosystem-based function,” with timed water releases for fish, flow augmentation in spring and summer, a plan to assess the feasibility of fish passage beyond Grand Coulee Dam where it is now blocked. Changing river flows means less hydropower production, which surely will add to the $1 billion the Northwest ratepayers spend yearly for the betterment of salmon and steelhead.
The draft recommendation is just seven pages long, plus cover letter. It does not offer a clear idea of what the Sovereign Review Team and the United States Entity might ask of us. Douglas County PUD General Manager Bill Dobbins said it is conceivable the higher price of the ecosystem function will erase anything saved by reducing the Canadian Entitlement. “Based on the words in the draft recommendation, I can see it going either way,” Dobbins said, adding, “I don’t know exactly what to be worried about now.”
Perhaps we should worry that too many people see a rewrite of the Columbia River Treaty as an opportunity to leverage additional support from the Northwest ratepayers, beyond their already heavy burden. It could be the chance to write into an international treaty requirements that couldn’t find their way into the dam licenses and federal wildlife plans the ratepayers already finance. “Columbia Basin tribes and others continue discussing the degree and extent to which both Canadian and U.S. hydropower production should be reduced or traded-off in order to provide increased ecosystem-based function,” said the U.S. Entity cover letter.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.