U.S. Should Modernize Columbia River Treaty Act

U.S. Should Modernize Columbia River Treaty Act

by Greg Haller —

The Pacific Northwest has a tremendous opportunity to modernize the 50-year-old U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty to benefit people, fish and wildlife. Lawmakers are asking for it, conservationists are asking for it, tribes are asking for it. American Rivers recently designated the Columbia as the nation’s second most endangered river because of the U.S. government’s failure to move toward modernizing the treaty.

Why must we modernize the Treaty? The current Treaty has only two purposes: power generation and flood control. The needs of salmon are not addressed. Although the Treaty has no specified end date, without action, coordinated flood control operations with Canada will change substantially to the detriment of the U.S. in 2024. The U.S. will be forced to manage floods by utilizing all effective storage in U.S. reservoirs before calling on Canada to store floodwater to prevent damage downstream. Such a result would upend established power, fish, flood control and irrigation operations throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Punting this issue to the next President will virtually guarantee this result. The Treaty says that either side may terminate the Treaty with 10 years’ notice. It is time to start that clock and begin negotiations.

How should we modernize the Treaty? The December 2013 Regional Recommendation, developed by the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, offers a consensus starting point. In it, four states, 15 Columbia Basin tribes and 11 federal agencies, with substantial input from regional stakeholders, all recommended adding ecosystem function as a third purpose of the Treaty. Additionally, the Recommendation calls on the Army Corps to review flood risk management at dams on the U.S. side of the basin to assure adequate flood risk protection while providing higher spring and summer flows for salmon. The Recommendation calls on the U.S. and Canada to explore salmon passage and reintroduction into Canada. It also embraces a change to benefit U.S. electric utilities, recommending a different approach for sharing hydropower. These elements are all critical to modernize the current Treaty for the 21st century needs of fish and people.

A flood risk management review and studies aimed at restoring salmon to historic habitats in the upper basin and Canada are critical for protecting and restoring a healthy ecosystem and ensuring salmon populations persist in a warming world. Currently, operations aimed at controlling run-off harm salmon, particularly in low-flow years, when reservoirs are unnecessarily drawn down, subjecting migrating juvenile salmon to longer travel times through warm slack water, increasing the likelihood of disease and predation. A flood risk review is critical to understanding how climate change will affect run-off patterns and whether our current infrastructure is up to the task of handling anticipated major flood events. It will identify areas where we need infrastructure improvements and areas where floodplains can be safely restored and reconnected to rivers, restoring natural flood storage and improving habitat. Flood risk management studies can help chart a path forward that will benefit hydropower, recreation, irrigation and salmon – pretty much the definition of a “win-win” solution when you’re talking about the Columbia River. The Northwest needs this information to plan for the future, and the Obama Administration needs the information to negotiate effectively with Canada.

However, 16 months after release of the Regional Recommendation, the Obama Administration has moved at a glacial speed. Recently, Northwest lawmakers called on the administration to renegotiate the treaty and the administration responded by saying that they have adopted the regional recommendation – which includes ecosystem function – as a negotiating platform. But the administration still has yet to formally open the negotiations.

We can’t wait any longer. Led by Senators Murray and Wyden, the Northwest delegation was right to call out the Obama Administration’s delay in moving forward. By modernizing the Columbia River Treaty for the 21st century, we can maintain our low-cost power, protect against floods, and maximize the benefits of a healthy river for fish, wildlife, and all people and communities. But first we need the information to lay the groundwork for effective negotiations. The President must act now.

Greg Haller is conservation director for Pacific Rivers. greg headshot

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