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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Treaty Talk: Americans and Canadians discuss hopes for new Columbia River Treaty

Mary Ann Coules, a spokeswoman for BC Hydro, walks across mudflats near Castlegar, B. C., toward a marina affected by the spring drawdown of the upper Columbia River in spring 2015. A deep drawdown of the reservoir in early March prepares the reservoir to capture spring runoff to prevent downstream flooding. (Becky Kramer / The Spokesman-Review)

When Lake Roosevelt is at full pool for recreation, Canadians living along the Columbia River sometimes get jealous.

Storage dams in British Columbia protect Northwest residents from flooding and increase downstream power output at U.S. dams. But Canadians living along those reservoirs pay a price: They’re subject to water levels that can rise and fall 80 feet per year.

That means B.C. reservoirs can be low when Lake Roosevelt’s water levels are high.

“The river in Canada is no longer a river. It’s an industrial bathtub that floats up and down depending on the needs of generators in the U.S,” said Jay Johnson, a policy analyst for the Okanagan Nation Alliance in B.C.

Beaches are stranded from the river, and vast mudflats appear along the shoreline. When the mudflats dry out, they create dust storms that choke resort towns dependent on tourism.

“Our community in Canada continues to see ongoing negative impacts from the treaty,” said Deb Kozak, the mayor of Nelson, B.C.

Those issues must be addressed as the U.S. and Canada renegotiate the 1964 Columbia River Treaty, a group of Canadians told their U.S. counterparts Tuesday during the Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane.

The annual forum brings people together to talk about issues in the Upper Columbia basin. Residents from both sides of the border had a frank talk Tuesday about what they hope to see in treaty negotiations. Efforts to modernize the 1964 treaty are expected to begin this year.

“We are hopeful negotiations will be starting very soon,” said Francisco Palmieri, an acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department, told the crowd. “This is an extremely important bilateral treaty … with our closest ally.”

The treaty governs operations along the 1,200-mile Columbia and its tributaries. It followed a devastating 1948 flood that destroyed an Oregon city near Portland, and U.S. engineers’ realization that the best remaining dam-building sites were in Canada. The treaty was narrowly crafted with a focus on flood control and hydropower.

“It was all about should we build those dams and how should we share the costs and benefits,” said Tom Karier, the Eastern Washington representative for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

This time around, there’s a push to address the Columbia’s ecosystem functions – such as water releases to help fish – which weren’t considered in the 1960s. Tribes and Canada’s First Nations also want the treaty to address aspects of salmon restoration.

During recent drought years, sockeye salmon “basically baked in the river … before they made it back to spawning grounds,” said D.R. Michel, executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes.

Hydropower will continue to be an important function of the treaty, Karier said. The future of the “Canadian Entitlement” is also up for discussion.

British Columbia gets paid for operating the storage dams that benefit downstream hydroelectric generation and flood control. The entitlement payments send roughly $250 million worth of electricity to Canada each year.

Canadians also said the U.S. could do more to prevent flooding by restoring flood plains south of the international border. During high runoff years, the flood plains would absorb some of the flow, reducing the need for water storage in Canada.

As the home of the Columbia’s headwaters, Canada has a strong hand in the negotiations. Only about 15 percent of the watershed is in Canada, but that area contributes about 35 percent of the river’s flow, the State Department’s Palmieri said.

“We are looking ahead to how this treaty can be mutually beneficial in the 21st century,” he said, “and faithful to the desires of the people who live here in the basin.”