The Columbia River Treaty has been one of the most successful international agreements ever, partly due to the leading role played by regional entities on both sides of the border in its management. It has produced billions of dollars of benefit for American and Canadian residents of the Pacific Northwest, and showed the world how a cross-border river basin could be managed to benefit two countries.
But circumstances have changed, and it is time to modernize the treaty. Renegotiation should begin now, and the United States should not hesitate to provide notice of intent to terminate the applicable treaty provisions to ensure a serious negotiation.
The framers of the treaty in the middle of the last century understood that this time would come. They designed the treaty to support the development of hydropower and flood control projects on the Canadian side of the Columbia River, and create a coordination system to optimize the value of the river’s waters. The framers also recognized that circumstances would likely change, so they designed the treaty to allow for a discussion of rebalancing after 50 years – that is, after September 2014.
The treaty needs to be modernized in three primary ways:
First, the treaty commits Canada to provide 60 years of flood control protection for the U.S. in return for a fixed sum payment. Beyond 2024, the treaty provides a vague flood control regime that will, without mutual agreement, be defined on an ad hoc annual basis. Communities on both sides of the border would be better served by the certainty that a renewed treaty would provide.
Second, the treaty provides for a sharing of electricity produced at U.S. hydropower facilities, which is enhanced by Canadian water storage and release. The value provided by the U.S. was to be used by Canada to construct three large dams. The treaty explicitly understood that these were commercial arrangements that would need to be reformulated as time passed, but the provisions created certainty through a term that would allow the amortization of the cost of building the Canadian hydropower projects. That time is now complete. Continuation of the existing arrangement is inequitable to U.S. electric ratepayers.
Third, the treaty was signed at a time when environmental values were not at the forefront of the national or regional consciousness. Salmon and steelhead in the Columbia are impacted by flows across the border. It is time to add an ecosystem consideration to the flood control and hydropower components of the treaty.
The new treaty must also be more flexible than the current version. The framers of the original treaty were not confronted with the uncertainty of future climate change. While substantial effort has gone into projecting the precipitation and temperature of the Columbia, humility would suggest that there is much still to be learned about how the river will run in the future.
The framers understood the treaty was partly a commercial arrangement and partly the expression of shared values throughout the Pacific Northwest. The implementation of an immensely complex operation has mostly gone smoothly because it has been delegated to entities with deep regional roots. Regional stakeholders in the U.S. spent years studying the treaty’s impacts and developing a proposed U.S. negotiating position that offers a responsible path forward rooted in the economic, social and environmental realities of the region. The federal government has been “studying” that position for nearly two years.
Recognize that nobody is more committed than the regional stakeholders to maintaining the strong bilateral cooperation that has been the hallmark of the Columbia River Treaty, a position that has been endorsed twice by all 26 Northwest congressional delegation members. It is time for the federal government to stop studying and empower the regional entities to develop an updated treaty.
Steve Wright, former chair of the U.S. entity for administration of the Columbia River Treaty from 2000-2013, is general manager of the Chelan County Public Utility District. Matthew Rooney, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for North America (2010 – 2013), is director of economic growth at the George W. Bush Institute.