Nearly 50 years ago, Canada and the United States shook hands over a groundbreaking accord that altered life in the Northwest.
The Columbia River Treaty turned the 1,200-mile-long river and its tributaries into an electrical powerhouse, producing more kilowatts than any other North American river system.
As a result of the treaty, three large storage dams in British Columbia and Montana’s Libby Dam were built to boost downstream hydropower production, fueling the Northwest’s supply of cheap electricity. The storage dams also held back the spring runoff that had caused destructive flooding.
“Even though it’s not commonly known, the treaty really runs the lives of everyone in the Northwest,” said Suzanne Skinner, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Seattle. “It’s the fulcrum, or balancing point, for everything we want from the river.”
The 1964 accord is still hailed as a model of international cooperation, but policymakers on both sides of the border are evaluating whether it’s due for a rewrite. Signed before landmark environmental laws took effect, the treaty doesn’t mention endangered salmon runs or climate change. Other river uses, including recreation and irrigation, aren’t in the treaty either.
Although the Columbia River 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 talks could begin in 2014.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are currently reviewing the 20-page treaty in consultation with 15 Northwest tribes, the four Northwest states and other federal agencies. By fall 2013, top BPA and Army Corps administrators will make a recommendation to the U.S. State Department.
“We’re trying to determine whether it’s in the U.S.’s best interest to continue, modify or terminate the treaty,” said Mike Hansen, a BPA spokesman.
Local residents can be part of the discussion during a “listening session” on Monday in Airway Heights. Corps and BPA officials will give an overview of the treaty and take input.
The treaty has provided benefits for both countries, but it also has costs, Hansen said. In British Columbia, construction of the treaty dams flooded farms and displaced more than 2,000 residents. To compensate Canada for the construction of Duncan, Keenleyside and Mica dams, the treaty gives Canada half of the benefit of downstream power production.
“They get a piece of the action,” Hansen said, and that energy is valued at $229 million to $335 million per year.
But Canada’s participation in the treaty also provides valuable flood control to U.S. communities, Hansen said.
Canada’s cooperation helped reduce damage during the 1996 floods, which still caused $500 million in property damage in the Northwest, killed eight people in Oregon and came within inches of spilling over Portland’s seawalls, he said.
As regulators evaluate the treaty, they’ll also look at impacts on fish, wildlife and water quality. Since the treaty was signed, 13 Pacific salmon stocks have received endangered species protection. The tribes want salmon addressed in the treaty.
“In 1964, no tribal rights were being enforced,” said Skinner, with the Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “There were few environmental laws, and people were still dumping stuff directly into the river.”
Climate change also needs to be part of the discussion, she said. A warming climate is melting British Columbia’s glaciers, which feed the river’s headwaters, and diminishing mountain snowpacks in the Columbia Basin.
Those changes will affect the survival of salmon runs.
“It will be especially acute if we lose glaciers and water shortage becomes a bigger issue,” Skinner said.