The U.S. and Canada need to prioritize swiftly modernizing the nearly 60-year treaty governing the management of the Columbia River between the two countries, wrote U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and Idaho Sen. James Risch in a Wednesday letter to President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“A modernized treaty regime will benefit both of our countries by strengthening flood response and creating opportunities for better management of our shared water resources to overcome new challenges,” the senators wrote.
Cantwell, a Democrat, and Risch, a Republican, lead the Pacific Northwest delegation in negotiations. They argue a new treaty could spur grid modernization, improve access to U.S. markets for Canadian electricity and lead to more efficient systems governing the flow of water through the series of dams along the major waterway. Unless an agreement is reached by September, some provisions of the treaty, which has dramatically shaped the Columbia River since the 1960s, will lapse.
“The United States and Canada have long benefited from our close and extraordinarily positive relationship,” the senators wrote. “We should avoid the uncertainty and potential disputes that could come from any further delays in concluding negotiations over modernization of the Columbia River Treaty.”
The United States began building dams along the Columbia River 90 years ago, first with the Rock Island Dam in 1932 and later the Bonneville, Grand Coulee and others, providing cheap electricity that would attract military industries, but governed by seasonal water flow and without sufficient reservoir storage to mitigate flooding.
In 1948, a flood devastated communities along the river from southeastern British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, destroying the Vanport community near Portland, which was the second-largest city in Oregon at the time, causing over $100 million in damages and killing at least 16. A joint commission of the United States and Canada that had formed four years earlier to explore bilateral improvements along the Columbia River gained a new sense of urgency in the wake of the Vanport Flood.
The Columbia River Treaty was signed in 1961 and went into effect in 1964, which led to the construction of new dams and major reservoirs on the Canadian side of the border, causing the displacement of those who lived in areas that are today underwater. With that additional storage capacity, water could be reliably directed downriver to American dams, generating power to meet demand or held back in Canadian reservoirs to prevent flooding.
The treaty gives the U.S. significant control over the release of that water in Canadian reservoirs. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to give Canada half of the estimated increased power generated by the downriver dams in what is called the Canadian Entitlement, much of which is sold back to the U.S. Today, the Canadian Entitlement is worth approximately $120 million to $335 million annually, with Canadian and U.S. government officials varying wildly in their estimates.
The treaty has come under fire from a number of directions in the interceding decades, including environmental groups worried about habitat displaced by reservoirs and the impact of dams on the migration of salmon and other fish. Tribal governments were left out of negotiations. Recent drought also has exposed fault lines in the deal, with communities along the Canadian reservoirs worried that their government has insufficient flexibility to hold back flows as local water levels recede, the CBC reported in October.
Most provisions of the Columbia River Treaty do not need to be renewed, though either country could initiate a termination of the treaty starting in 2024, though only after a 10-year notice. The Assured Annual Flood Control provision of the treaty, however, expires automatically on Sept. 16.
In addition to sharing electricity generated, the U.S. paid $65 million in compensation for the flood control benefits of the deal, a 60-year provision set to expire next year. In exchange, Canada agreed to reserve a certain amount of storage in its reservoirs every year that can be used to slow flows downriver and prevent floods.
While neither country has signaled a desire to terminate the treaty, the need to renew the flood control provisions have animated efforts to renegotiate other terms at the same time.
Canadian authorities have argued that their government needs more control over their reservoirs and additional compensation through the Canadian Entitlement. U.S. negotiators have countered that entitlement payments are larger than they should be.
“The current Canadian entitlement is not acceptable to us and to many other members of the U.S. Congress,” Cantwell and Risch wrote in their Wednesday letter. “Any compensation must be reasonable and defensible for funding to be approved by the U.S. Congress.”
U.S. authorities have also argued environmental responsibility should become an agreed-upon priority, in addition to power generation and flood control. In order to move the smolt of fish such as salmon downriver to the ocean, the U.S. frequently spills water over its dams without generating power, but still compensates the Canadian government as though power was generated, payments that U.S. negotiators have argued should be ended or reduced.
Cantwell alluded to these negotiations in a 2016 letter to Trudeau.
“Given the growing impact to our climate, natural environment and economy, I believe we must find a mutually beneficial path forward to modernize the treaty in a way that balances flood control, ecosystem-based function, and hydropower generation,” Cantwell wrote.
If the Assured Annual Flood Control provision is allowed to expire, the U.S. would have to request and compensate Canada for flood control on an ad hoc basis. Already, during periods of very high flows on the river, the U.S. can call upon Canada to provide additional reservoir storage over and above the annual guarantee, but only after proving the U.S. has effectively tried to use its own reservoirs, and then at a price.
How exactly that would work is unclear; the Columbia River Treaty does not describe how this ad hoc system would operate, nor the costs that would be borne by the U.S., according to the Congressional Research Service.