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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S., Canada clash over Columbia River Treaty agendas

Vast mudflats appear in British Columbia’s Lake Koocanusa when the reservoir is lowered to protect U.S. communities from flooding.

Houseboats moored on the reservoir get mired in the muck. And when the mud dries out, dust storms choke people in nearby communities.

The mudflats are terrible for tourism, and they’re one of the impacts of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty, which led to the construction of large storage dams in British Columbia, said Debra Kozak, a city councilwoman from Nelson, B.C.

“What we live with in Canada is industrial dams,” she said during a meeting of the Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane on Tuesday. At Lake Koocanusa, the reservoir behind Libby Dam that backs up into Canada, lake levels can fluctuate by 80 feet to meet U.S. power or flood control needs.

U.S. and Canadian officials laid out competing agendas Tuesday for updating the 50-year treaty that governs power generation and flood control along the Columbia River and its tributaries.

The Northwest wants to lower treaty payments to British Columbia for operating large storage dams in the headwaters that benefit downstream hydroelectric generation and flood control. The payments send $250 million to $350 million worth of electricity to Canada each year.

The Northwest is also interested in adding ecosystem functions, such as water for salmon passage over the dams, which wasn’t included in the 1964 treaty. And it wants Canada to share the cost of studies investigating the possibility of restoring salmon above Grand Coulee Dam into the upper Columbia watershed. Those runs went extinct in the 1930s, when the 550-foot dam was built without fish ladders.

“We like to use the term ‘modernize the treaty.’ … We think the region supports that,” said Dave Ponganis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is working with the Bonneville Power Administration to prepare a Northwest recommendation for updating the treaty.

British Columbia residents, however, think the U.S. isn’t paying enough for the benefits it gets from the treaty.

Canada’s water management benefits many downstream uses beyond power generation and flood control, including recreation, irrigation, fisheries and navigation, said Kathy Eichenberger, executive director for B.C.’s treaty review team.

“There is a lot of value from upstream regulation that Canada provides – more than what was contemplated when the treaty was first ratified,” Eichenberger said.

In addition, the Columbia River’s headwaters in British Columbia contribute about 35 percent of the flow in the river, and that percentage is expected to grow as climate change alters flows in the lower Columbia, Eichenberger said.

Province officials support the United States’ position of sharing the benefits of the treaty, she said. “We look forward to hearing how you see that working for Canada.”

Restoring salmon above Grand Coulee Dam generated lots of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting. Both U.S. tribes and First Nations in Canada support the return of salmon and steelhead to the upper Columbia Basin, saying the habitat to support the runs still exists.

“We were called the salmon-eaters,” said Matt Wynne, a member of the Spokane Tribe’s governing council. “We haven’t had a single salmon back since the 1930s.”

First Nations have proposed a three-year experimental pilot for restoring chinook salmon above Grand Coulee, using new methods to trap and transport the fish around the dams, said Bill Green, director of the Canadian Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission.

British Columbia and the Northwest are working to finalize recommendations for treaty negotiations for their national governments. In mid-December, the Army Corps and BPA will give their recommendation to the U.S. State Department, which will decide whether renegotiating the treaty is in the national interest.

The treaty has no expiration date, but either country can cancel most provisions after September 2024, with a 10-year notice.