5 reasons the Columbia River Treaty is a big deal

The U.S. states of the Pacific Northwest have just released their bargaining position on the Columbia River Treaty and, as expected, they want to pay less to B.C. to store water behind its dams. Here are five reasons why Canadians should play close attention to the development of a new deal.

Money, electricity, salmon restoration, First Nations' rights, and water use could be up for renegotiation

The Columbia River, looking upstream at the Waneta industrial area, which is just five kilometres from the U.S. border. The Columbia River flows roughly 2,000 kilometres from the mountains near Invermere, through three dams in B.C. and 11 dams in Washington State, past Portland, Ore, and to the Pacific Ocean just west of Astoria. (Rhiannon Coppin/CBC)

Fifty years ago, Canada and B.C. signed a treaty with the U.S. that created reservoirs hundreds of kilometres long along the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Under the terms of the deal, the Americans have tremendous sway regarding when water is released for power generation and flood control — and they pay hundreds of millions of dollars for that right.

Now, the treaty is up for renegotiation and the U.S. states of the Pacific Northwest have just laid out their position: They want to pay far less for the right to, essentially, store water in B.C.

The states also want to begin talking about getting Pacific salmon around dams and back to the Upper Columbia, and they want other ecosystem-related issues along the river to take a higher priority.

The original treaty, which was signed in 1964, came after spring runoff killed more than 30 people and destroyed the community of Vanport, Ore., in 1948, causing economic losses that exceeded $100 million.

The Duncan Dam, in the Purcell Mountains, is one of three B.C. dams built as part of the Columbia River Treaty, which was signed with the U.S. in 1964. In return for building the Mica, Keenleyside and Duncan dams, which provide water storage for power generation in the U.S., B.C. is entitled to half the additional power generated because of the water storage. (Government of B.C.)

The treaty has no expiration date, but either country may cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024, with 10 years' notice.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration are leading the review of the treaty in consultation with other federal agencies, four northwest states and more than a dozen tribes.

The U.S. State Department will make the ultimate decision on whether the U.S. wants to renegotiate the treaty. B.C. has not released its final position on whether it wants to renegotiate it.

Here are five reasons why such talks would be important to Canadians:

1. Money

The U.S. issued a one-time payment of $64 million to Canada for flood control for the first 60 years of the treaty, and under its terms, agreed to send Canada some of the power generated downstream, or the monetary equivalent. Over the first 30 years of the treaty, $254 million went to Canada, which used it to finance the construction of its three Columbia River dams. In the past 10 years, the U.S. has sent power worth $250 to $350 million a year to Canada, and now wants to reduce that obligation. The U.S. says future payment calculations should be based on how Canada runs the system to benefit the U.S.

2. Power

The U.S. sends Canada half the increased power generation at downstream U.S. hydropower dams. That increased power results from the operation of additional storage capacity created by the three dams built in Canada, which were financed by power sold by U.S. utilities. The U.S. now says that because it has paid off the cost of the Canadian dams, it should send less power as part of its Canadian entitlement obligations.

3. Fish passage

Salmon once sustained people, bears, and an entire ecosystem along large stretches of the river. A renegotiated treaty could bring salmon back to the Upper Columbia — or not. While the U.S. wants to pursue a joint program with Canada to study the possibility of restoring fish passage on Columbia's main stem to Canadian spawning grounds, B.C. indicated in a draft of its position that restoration of fish passage and habitat is not a treaty issue.

4. First Nations' rights

B.C.'s position is that it and BC Hydro will engage affected communities and First Nations throughout any negotiation process. In the U.S., more than a dozen tribes are already involved. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Paul Lumley said in a statement that his group is pleased the ecosystem is being considered as a new pillar in the treaty.

"The tribes also look forward to working with the First Nations of Canada to restore fish passage to all historic locations," Lumley said.

A better-managed Columbia waterway could also contribute tremendously to the way of life in the Columbia basin, an area roughly the size of France, where tourism is booming and recreational opportunities abound.

5. Climate Change

According to the recommendations put forward by the U.S. states, the treaty should also include ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and to aid threatened and endangered species that weren't considered when the treaty was created decades ago. The importance of fresh water sources will only increase with population growth and global warming, and this treaty is about the management of the largest river in the Pacific Northwest region of North America.

B.C.'s position, as outlined in a draft released in October, did agree with the U.S. position on making the system more flexible to respond to climate change and improving the ecosystem, but did not want to re-open the treaty.

The Columbia Basin, the area in which water drains into the Columbia River, is approximately 673,400 square kilometres, which is roughly the size of France. (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers)

With files from the CBC's Bob Keating, David French and The Associated Press

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