Native people want a say in the future of the Columbia River Treaty, an accord between U.S. and Canada that governs power generation and flood control along the 1,200-mile river.
The treaty is up for possible renegotiation in 2024. Though it’s often hailed as an example of international cooperation, the 1964 treaty doesn’t mention salmon – a critical oversight for 15 tribes living along the river and its tributaries.
“When it was negotiated, it was narrowly designed for power generation and flood control,” said D.R. Michel, executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.
Salmon, he said, need equal consideration.
Michel spoke Monday at the Lake Roosevelt Forum, a two-day meeting at the Davenport Hotel on issues affecting the Upper Columbia River. The treaty took center stage at the meeting.
Though the treaty doesn’t have an expiration date, either country can cancel most of its provisions after September 2024, with a 10-year minimum notice. If either the U.S. or Canada wants changes, treaty discussions could begin as early as 2014.
The treaty is under review by the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agencies anticipate making treaty recommendations to the U.S. State Department by September 2013.
The timeline has galvanized tribes from Cowlitz at the mouth of the Columbia River to the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho near the U.S.-Canadian border. They’ve been meeting for the past year to talk about how common interests in fisheries and cultural resources might be addressed in the treaty. They’ve also reached out to First Nations.
The dams have taken a heavy toll on salmon, the lifeblood for many Northwest tribes, said Michel, whose organization represents the Spokane, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel and Kootenai tribes.
Local tribes share a dream of re-establishing salmon runs above Grand Coulee Dam, which was built in the 1930s without fish ladders. Before the dam’s construction, tribes traveled hundreds of miles to fish at Kettle Falls.
“They say that the salmon were so thick that you could walk across the river on their backs. I believe that,” said Virgil Seymour Sr., a member of the Colville Tribes Business Council. “I’ve seen the pictures.”
About 64 percent of the Northwest’s electricity comes from hydropower. At certain times of the year, the region also sells surplus electricity to California and Arizona.
“Our state benefits from the low-cost, zero-carbon power generated by the Columbia River,” said Tom Karier, Washington’s representative on the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council.
The 14 dams addressed in the treaty also provide flood control benefits. The treaty led to the construction of three new dams in Canada and Libby Dam on the Kootenai River, a tributary of the Columbia, with a reservoir that backs 42 miles into Canada. Those four dams more than doubled the basin’s water storage capacity.
But in today’s environment, salmon have to be part of the treaty’s discussion, said Matt Rea, a program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. As part of the treaty review, corps officials will investigate whether the current Columbia River Treaty is flexible enough to address salmon without a full-blown rewrite.
“As much as possible, it benefits us to keep the decisions within the region,” Rea said. And consensus, he added, is critical.
“Nothing compels Canada to operate their reservoirs for the benefit of fish downstream,” he said. “It has to be mutually beneficial to Canada.”