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McMorris Rodgers, Murray lead bipartisan group calling on Biden to prioritize new Columbia River Treaty

UPDATED: Wed., June 30, 2021

C is for Channeled Scablands and Columbia River. Photo submitted by John and Crystal Zieske.
C is for Channeled Scablands and Columbia River. Photo submitted by John and Crystal Zieske.

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 21 Northwest lawmakers called on President Joe Biden on Tuesday to prioritize a long-running effort to renegotiate a 60-year-old treaty that governs how the United States and Canada share the waters of the Columbia River Basin.

In a letter to Biden, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Sen. Patty Murray and Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio led the group urging the president to update the Columbia River Treaty and keep the region’s congressional delegation apprised of the negotiations. Efforts to revise the treaty, which was signed in 1961 and went into effect in 1964, began in 2013 amid concerns over salmon runs, flood risk and electricity the U.S. sends to Canada under the accord.

“Modernizing this treaty is critically important to protecting our region from flood control risks and ensuring we can continue to lead with clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable hydropower,” McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican, said in a statement. “The status quo and lack of communication are unacceptable. It’s time for American leadership to step up and reach an agreement that benefits the entire Pacific Northwest in the 21st Century.”

The treaty, which took more than 20 years to negotiate, came together after a devastating 1948 flood washed away what once was Oregon’s second-biggest city, Vanport. It provided for the construction of one dam in Montana and three in British Columbia, completed between 1968 and 1973, that together more than doubled the amount of reservoir storage in the basin, providing benefits for both flood prevention and generating power.

Most of the treaty’s provisions don’t have an expiration date, but half a century after its signing, changing conditions spurred an effort to modernize it. The Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers – which together form the U.S. entity responsible for the agreement – began a review of the deal in 2011 and recommended a series of changes to the State Department in 2013.

The recommendations included letting more water flow through the dams in spring and summer to improve fish passage, decreasing the treaty’s impact on tribal resources and updating flood management plans. The BPA and Army Corps of Engineers also recommended changing a provision known as “the Canadian Entitlement,” which requires the U.S. to send cash and half of power generated downstream to Canada in exchange for the water resources.

The BPA and Army Corps of Engineers have estimated the value of the Canadian Entitlement to be between $229 million and $335 million a year, contending the current treaty gives the U.S. a raw deal. Canadian negotiators have argued the current entitlement is fair and they see no reason for the treaty to exist without that provision. Either country can terminate the treaty with 10 years’ notice, but neither has done so.

“We want to get to a good deal as quickly as possible for our economy and families across the Pacific Northwest,” Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “I hope and expect the Biden administration will work with Tribes and stakeholders to quickly reach a comprehensive renegotiation of the treaty while keeping Congress abreast of its progress.”

A State Department spokesperson said Friday the agency doesn’t comment on congressional correspondence but promised to consult with lawmakers on the treaty.

“We are working to identify next steps with Canada regarding the Columbia River Treaty regime and will consult with our congressional colleagues on this issue, which impacts many sectors in the Pacific Northwest, including ecosystem protection, flood risk management, and energy,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The letter’s other signers are Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson, both Idaho Republicans; Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley; Rep. Matthew Rosendale, R-Mont.; Oregon Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer, Kurt Schrader – all Democrats – and Cliff Bentz, a Republican; Washington Democratic Reps. Suzan DelBene, Rick Larsen, Derek Kilmer, Pramila Jayapal, Kim Schrier, Adam Smith and Marilyn Strickland; and Washington GOP Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse.

Two other Northwest senators who did not sign Tuesday’s letter, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell and Idaho Republican Jim Risch, sent their own letter June 10 asking Biden to prioritize the talks, designate a White House official to work with the State Department-led negotiating team, and requesting a meeting with

While Cantwell and Risch expressed their “full confidence” in the State Department team in their letter, the 21 other lawmakers on Tuesday demanded more transparency from the administration, writing, “We reject the argument that providing adequate information to the delegation puts our negotiating position at risk.”

U.S. and Canadian negotiators held 10 rounds of talks between May 2018 and June 2020. Wednesday marks a full year since the last negotiating round.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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