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Editorial: Columbia River treaty talks need united front

Renegotiation of a 40-year-old pact splitting the benefits of the Columbia River could become a sore point in United States relations with Canada, and rebalance economies in one of the world’s great watersheds.

Many Northwest utilities recommend the Columbia River Treaty be terminated in 2024, when its original provisions allow for changes. Terms governing flood control already call for the shifting of primary responsibility to the U.S., which could radically alter the management of reservoirs like Lake Roosevelt.

That will affect the timing of hydropower generation, the treaty’s other main objective.

The Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers want to deliver recommended treaty revisions to the U.S. State Department by year-end. Many of the region’s utilities are not happy with what they have seen so far.

At 1 p.m. today, the public will have an opportunity to wade in during a discussion at the Spokane Public Libraries Downtown Branch.

Why care?

Bonneville estimates Canada receives 10 times the value of its contributions to river operations, as much as $300 million in power generated from U.S. dams and transmitted into British Columbia. The region anted up $64 million to help fund construction of three B.C. dams. They have been fully paid for, and it’s time to rebalance the split of the benefits from those projects.

That will affect the utility bill – for the better – of almost every Northwest resident.

Also, if you boat on Lake Roosevelt, the certainty of a full reservoir in summer becomes less certain.

Meanwhile, the region’s tribes, fishing interests and others are viewing the renegotiations as an opportunity to re-examine the potential to restore salmon runs above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, at a cost in cash and lost power generation the utilities reject. They do not want ecological considerations given equal weight with the treaty’s original focus on flood control and power generation.

They also suggest that U.S. taxpayers shoulder, as they do for other watersheds, whatever additional flood control expenses result from changes the treaty requires.

Ultimately, it will be the State Department that decides whether the treaty needs to be changed at all. The Canadians, needless to say, have their own perspective on the tradeoffs made when the treaty was signed by Premier John Diefenbaker and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. A squabble over the Columbia River Treaty may not be important enough from the perspective of Washington, D.C., to distract the U.S. from its overwhelming positive relationship with our northern neighbors.

The treaty must be changed. It has become a costly anachronism that does not account for the changes in river management and priorities on both sides of the border. But if the Northwest wants to convince the State Department renegotiation is worth the effort, the competing interests on this side need to agree on their objectives.

We’re not there yet, and time is running out.

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