International treaties are not casual documents. They are more than regulation, more than state law. The Constitution gives them weight. They are not easily made, not easily changed. Obligating the people of the Northwest by international treaty to finance assistance for their own country’s fish runs, beyond the billions already spent, beyond the perpetual legal burdens they already carry, should not be done lightly.
It may happen, if the draft recommendation for a new Columbia River Treaty released Friday can be interpreted with accuracy. The draft recommendation expresses the desire to end by 2024 the current treaty between Canada and the United States governing management of the Columbia, replacing it with a new agreement. The recommendation is compiled by the United States Entity (Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration) with input from the Sovereign Review Team (tribes, states, agencies). A final recommendation to the State Department is due by December.
The draft recommendation expresses a desire to “modernize” the treaty, elevate an “ecosystem-based function” to a status equal with power production and flood control, and add flexibility for climate change. The recommendation is necessarily vague. It says a treaty should provide for river flows of “appropriate timing, quantity and water quality” to promote fish runs, and allow the release of greater flows in spring and summer. It would “if warranted” restore fish passage beyond Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, as a long-term and possibly very expensive goal.
These measures, whatever they are, will come at a price, and it may be left to ratepayers. One valid reason for a new treaty is to fix the so-called Canadian Entitlement, power sent to Canada as payment for downstream power benefits. The entitlement is valued at $250 million or more a year, 27 percent coming from our PUDs, and in nearly everyone’s eyes is far greater than the actual benefit. The ratepayers overpay Canada. Reading between the recommendation’s lines, it appears the hope may be to take that overpayment and apply it to fish enhancement.
The treaty, the draft recommendation states, should not “prevent the region from achieving its obective of reducing U.S. power costs. In order to accomplish this, funding for additional ecosystem-based function operations should come from rebalancing of the power benefits between the two countries or from other sources.”
There is reason to be wary of negotiating this financial exchange by international treaty. The Northwest’s ratepayers have been sending hundreds of millions of dollars in power to Canada every year, estimated to be perhaps 10 times greater than value received. They spend a quarter of their power bills to help improve salmon runs, a collective $1 billion a year. Now, a treaty may give them not relief, but new obligations financed by “rebalancing” their overpayment.
Please, proceed with caution.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.