By Eric Tegethoff

Washington News Service

SPOKANE — A cleaner Columbia River could unlock even more economic potential for the Northwest, according to a new report.

In Earth Economics’ analysis of the Columbia River Basin, its natural value totals nearly $200 billion dollars annually in food, water, recreation, flood risk reduction and more. The report also found if the basin’s ecosystem were just 10 percent healthier, $19 billion dollars of value would be added each year.

Greg Haller, conservation director with Pacific Rivers, a nonprofit group that contributed to the report, said investing in salmon recovery and other changes to make the river flow more naturally would come at little expense to the river’s other operations.

“We can have all those other values — we can still have hydropower, we can still have irrigation,” Haller said. “What we’ll get if we improve the health of the river, not only will that produce ecological benefits, but those benefits will translate into real dollar benefits.”

Haller said one purpose of this report is to push back against sentiment in the region that salmon recovery is too costly, by proving that there’s value in a clean river that recoups losses to hydropower in other areas — such as a healthier fishing industry.

He said he hopes the report influences Columbia River Treaty negotiations in 2024 between the U.S. and Canada on developing and operating dams in the region.

“Right now, the treaty’s purposes are only for hydropower and flood-risk management,” he explained. “What was left out in the initial treaty was the needs of fish and the river’s ecosystem.”

D.R. Michel, head of the Upper Columbia United Tribes in Spokane, said recognizing the environment in the treaty is also important because it provides a chance to preserve the river for future generations.

“We can’t forget about the river. That’s very important part of this,” Michel said. “It’s not just a machine there to produce power and some of these other things. There’s a lot of other opportunities that we need to start focusing on.”

The analysis found hydropower would take a $69 million hit out of its current $3 billion a year operation in the basin if dams and reservoirs were changed to mimic spring and early-summer river flows, which are healthier for fish.

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