Columbia River Treaty not for ‘faint-hearted’

Vancouver Sun, Page A11, 07-Jun-2018

By Vaughn Palmer

While the B.C. government proposes “tweaking” the Columbia River Treaty in talks with the United States, voices on the American side have raised a more ambitious goal.

“Columbia River Treaty must include cheaper power rates,” was the headline last week in the Tri-City Herald, serving Kennewick, Pasco and Richland in Washington state.

The editorial, marking the start of negotiations on reopening the international treaty, made the argument that existing terms ratified in 1964 are now skewed in favour of Canada.

“We hope our representatives at the table can work out a better deal for U.S. utility companies and customers,” it continued. “While the terms laid out in the original treaty provided mutual benefits for both nations, the deal today gives an unfair advantage to our northern neighbours.”

The view is a common one in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, uniting politicians across the ideological divide.

Here’s Washington Congress member Dan Newhouse, a Republican, greeting the start of negotiations: “I applaud the Trump administration for getting the ball rolling on renegotiating this treaty.

“The Canadian entitlement especially must be updated so that the renegotiated management of the Columbia River proves to be an equitable arrangement that benefits both countries.”

And here’s Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat: “I have been pushing the state department for years to open talks with Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. I’m hopeful these talks will prove fruitful in the effort to make the treaty a better deal for Oregonians and the Pacific Northwest.”

The key, as the Americans see it, the Canadian entitlement, the treaty provision that provides this country with a share of electricity generated in the U.S. B.C. Hydro, which manages the Canadian side of the treaty, re-sells that power at market prices in the U.S. In the current financial year, it is projected to bring in just over $100 million, though in other years the sales have fetched several times as much.

If the Americans reduce or eliminate the entitlement, they would use the power to reduce electricity prices on their side. “It is estimated that our constituents overpay this entitlement by 10 times the reciprocal benefit,” says Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Spokane in Congress.

The reciprocal benefit being B.C. Hydro’s storage of water behind a trio of dams (Keenleyside, Mica and Duncan) on this side of the border. The water is held back during spring to minimize the risk of flooding in the U.S., then released throughout the rest of the year for other purposes downriver, including increased electrical generation.

Notwithstanding the view of Congresswoman Rodgers, the B.C. government view, as noted here Wednesday, is that the electricity entitlement does not begin to compensate the province for the impact of the treaty or the benefits it provides to the U.S.

The valleys that were flooded to make the storage reservoirs are still under water. The communities that were inundated are gone, along with the estimated 2,500 Canadians forced to relocate. And on the benefit front, there’s a healthy spirit of agreement among B.C. politicians as well.

Here’s B.C. Liberal Doug Clovechok, MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke during debate in the legislature on the treaty this spring: “The Americans need our water for their agriculture, their wine, their apples and all those sorts of things – and for navigation and shipping. There’s recreational real estate involved here. There are a lot of reservoirs – which very, very wealthy Americans have very large houses around, which they’re concerned about and certainly are lobbying their government, I’m sure.”

Here’s New Democrat Katrine Conroy, cabinet minister and MLA for Kootenay West, on the water storage part of the treaty, which runs out in 2024: “If there isn’t an agreement prior to 2024, the Americans would have to make effective use of their own storage. Right now if they need something, they phone and we adjust to meet their needs because they bought that (storage).

“They’d have to drain their reservoirs. This is something that they haven’t had to do since the ’60s. There could be issues with the fish. There would be issues definitely with keeping their reservoirs up. The tourist industry would suffer considerably, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen (U.S.) Lake Roosevelt down. It always seems to be at full pool. And it also increases their flood risk.”

On the flood risk, a good slogan for the B.C. contributors to the Canada-U.S. negotiations would be “Remember Vanport.” Once Oregon’s second-largest city, it was destroyed in the 1948 floods on the Columbia.

But the arguments for and against changing the entitlement are complex, relying as they do on the terms of the treaty, how things have unfolded since it was ratified in 1964 and a range of technical considerations on both sides.

One approach that might provide some common ground is a proposal to expand the treaty beyond the 1960s principles of flood control and power generation to include the environmental health of the river.

That would open the door to talks about managing the impact of climate change on the river, restoring salmon runs, and protecting values for public health, recreation and ecosystems on both sides of the river.

Opportunities, yes, but additional complexities as well.

“This effort is not going to be for the faint-hearted,” as Oregon Sen. Wyden said a while back when urging the two countries to get going on modernizing the now 54-year-old treaty.

 

Vpalmer@postmedia.com Twitter.com/VaughnPalmer !@COPYRIGHT=© 2018 Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.