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Outside View: Columbia River treaty a test for Trump

The following editorial appeared in the (Vancouver, Wash.) Columbian:

Donald Trump’s first year in office was not marked by major foreign policy achievements. But with the new year comes a new opportunity for his administration as a window opens to modernize the Columbia River Treaty with Canada.

The current treaty was signed in 1964 and governs hydropower and flood control operations on the Great River of the West, which forms from its headwaters in Canada and runs for 1,200 miles before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near Ilwaco.

The treaty doesn’t expire, but either nation could cancel some of its provisions after September 2024 with a 10-year notice.

The process of preparing to open the negotiations has been underway since the Obama administration. Earlier this month the Trump administration announced the two countries would open treaty negotiations in 2018. Although the document has been in force successfully for all these years, the treaty does not address modern-day concerns such as fish survival. As U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell noted, modernizing the treaty to balance flood control, hydropower and environmental protections would benefit both nations.

The river has been used by humans for centuries before Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Today it’s a highway, a habitat, a recreation spot, and used for disposal of waste. It’s a source of hydroelectricity and water for irrigation. Its reservoirs in Canada help control U.S. flooding.

People in both nations rely on this river, and as negotiations open, there are a lot of stakeholders who will need to be heard from. Some of the most important stakeholders weren’t part of the 1964 agreement.

Tribal governments would like to see the river flow more naturally, with additional water releases in dry years to aid salmon, according to a recent article in The Spokesman-Review. Upstream tribes, including those in Canada, would like to talk about the possibility of restoring salmon runs above Grand Coulee Dam.

Meanwhile a coalition of more than 80 Pacific Northwest utilities would like to renegotiate their annual payment of $250 million to $300 million to Canada as reparations for building and maintaining water storage in Canada to benefit hydropower generation in the United States. The utilities contend the formula is outdated and results in large overpayments to Canada that in turn are passed on to U.S. electrical customers.

The negotiators will also have to consider the impacts of global warming. Although many in the Trump administration may question its impact, scientists foresee a day when the U.S. snowpack will dwindle and Canada’s will be more important.

Will the Trump administration be up to the challenge? We earnestly hope so. Other than announcing that negotiations would begin, the only other thing Trump has done so far is dig up an old, badly flawed idea to sell federal hydroelectricity assets, such as the Bonneville Power Administration, to private utilities. Instead, negotiators would be much better served to consider all ideas fully and fairly, regardless of ideology.

Although the treaty is little-known to most Northwest residents, it’s easy to see why the issues it addresses form the bedrock of our economy and lifestyle. Modernizing the treaty to suit current and future needs is critical to both nations. We’re hoping that the process can result in better management of the river and a major foreign policy accomplishment for our president.


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