Columbia Basin Bulletin - Pacific Northwest Groups Urge Action On Modernizing Columbia River Treaty, Concerned About Uncertainties Of ‘Called-Upon’ Operations

September 22, 2022
Columbia Basin Bulletin - Pacific Northwest Groups Urge Action On Modernizing Columbia River Treaty, Concerned About Uncertainties Of ‘Called-Upon’ Operations

Nearly three-dozen Pacific Northwest organizations have sent a letter to the State Department and other federal agencies urging the Biden Administration to better inform the region on efforts to overhaul the 1964 U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty, add “ecosystem function” as a treaty purpose, and include Columbia River basin Tribes in treaty governance. The letter also expresses concerns about potential “called-upon” river operations if the treaty is not modernized by 2024. The current, 58-year-old treaty has only two priorities: maximizing hydropower production and engineered flood control. The 32 conservation, civic and faith organizations are calling on U.S. leaders to add Ecosystem Function – the health of the river and its ecosystems – as a third primary purpose of the Treaty.

“This summer’s intense heat across our region, following directly on the heels of last summer’s record breaking heat dome, is one more in an accelerating series of events demonstrating why the Columbia River Treaty needs major overhaul to serve Northwest people today and into the future,” says the letter. “Chronic hot water is killing salmon and degrading Columbia and Snake River health today, with worse coming. A modern treaty must give Northwest people greater standing and more tools to withstand this rising damage.“ For these reasons we ask you, the U.S. Negotiating Team, and the U.S. Entity, once again to partner with Canada to add Ecosystem Function – the health of the river – as a third, co-equal treaty purpose.” The treaty plays a significant role in shaping river flows and dam operations across the basin as more than a third of the Columbia’s water comes from Canada. “Among other positive changes, prioritizing Ecosystem Function means ensuring that fish have sufficient river flows in spring and early summer, especially in low to average water years,” say the groups.

The two countries have been in negotiations to update – ‘modernize’ – the Columbia River Treaty for over four years. If a new agreement is not reached within two years, the terms of the current Treaty will shift responsibility for flood control south of the border from Canada to the U.S., potentially forcing major operational changes at eight dams and reservoirs located in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.Currently the two countries operate the reservoirs and dams under Assured Operations Plans. Without AOPs management would resort to uncertain “called upon” operations.“ Given the lack of transparency to date, signatories on the letter are increasingly worried about how the federal government will deal with uncertainties and operational changes while protecting fish and wildlife, honoring tribal treaty obligations, and supporting river communities,” said the groups in a press release. “As you know,” says the letter, “we currently benefit from a collaborative flood risk management plan that is dependent upon assured Canadian storage to minimize flood risk in the U.S.

This critical collaboration ends on September 16, 2024 if negotiations fail to extend the collaborative approach by that day. We see signs now that Congress is preparing for unspecified ‘called upon’ operation of reservoirs after that date. Such operations have a high risk of further degrading already inadequate flows and cooling operations from critical reservoirs for salmon, other fish, and overall river health. This risk compounds if ‘called upon’ operations take place under the current treaty, in which for 58 years salmon and river health have been at best secondary and at worst ignored. The U.S. projects potentially most affected – Grand Coulee, Libby, Hungry Horse, Dworshak, Brownlee, Albeni Falls, Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’(formerly Kerr), and John Day – today carry significant fish, wildlife, recreation, cultural and community obligations that ‘called upon’ operations will put at risk. It is also worth emphasizing that other river uses, including power generation and agriculture, are also at risk of disruption in a ‘called upon’ scenario.

This view is shared by the treaty’s bi-national Permanent Engineering Board, which warns in its latest report hat the general lack of planning leaves us with “…no guidance on the operation of the Canadian storage system with significant consequences in both Canada and the US for power generation, flood risk management and social and environmental objectives. “Yet, with just two years remaining before the Northwest tumbles into the uncertainties and dangers of ‘called upon’ operations (and only one year until detailed planning for this scenario must begin), no federal effort is underway to engage Northwest people and communities as participants in deciding what ‘called upon’ will mean. No information on options, trade-offs and risks is being shared with those who will bear the consequences.“ It is as if looming changes in Columbia Basin reservoir operations are as confidential to affected Northwest people as are the Treaty negotiations themselves.”While negotiations are confidential, the organizations say Canada has maintained robust ongoing communication with its citizens and is working in full partnership with Indigenous nations.

The U.S. Negotiating Team has not held a public meeting in over 2.5 years and “provides only infrequent and minimal written updates,” say the groups. “We urge the Administration to include Columbia Basin tribes in Treaty governance, matching Canada’s recognition of Indigenous Nations’ future role in Treaty implementation,” says the letter. “This will begin to redress the injustice the treaty has imposed on the tribes for six decades, and help our region take full advantage of tribal expertise, traditional knowledge, science, and resources to assure river health.” The signatories also called on Canada “to work expeditiously with the U.S. to find agreement on a modernized Treaty that benefits both sides of the watershed for decades to come. The Columbia is one river and the two countries it flows through face a shared future. Notably, federal, provincial, and Indigenous governments in Canada are pursuing the reintroduction of salmon to blocked areas with great public support. The success of this effort depends on the health of downstream river conditions and salmon runs in the U.S.” The letter was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, State Department Chief Negotiator Jill Smail, Bonneville Power Administration Administrator John Hairston, and Northwestern Division Commander for Army Corps of Engineers Col. Geoff Van Epps.

Complete list of organizations that signed the letter: American Rivers, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Audubon Society of Portland, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Columbia Riverkeeper, Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power & Light, Endangered Species Coalition, Engineers for a Sustainable Future, Faith Action Network, Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Wildlife Federation, Institute for Fisheries Resources, National Wildlife Federation, Northwest Guides and Anglers Association, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, NW Energy Coalition, Oregon Coast Alliance, Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Oregon Wild, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, Sierra Club, Spokane Riverkeeper, Washington Wildlife Federation, WaterWatch of Oregon, Whale Scout, Wild Orca, Wild Steelhead CoalitionThe signing organizations recently launched the website. The organizations will also be hosting a webinar on Tuesday, October 4.

The U.S. NGO Treaty Caucus, an alliance of Northwest-based civic, faith, energy, and conservation organizations working for a modernized Columbia River Treaty, has been formed to “serve our region’s diverse needs now and into the future.” Core members include the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Earth Ministry/Washington Interfaith Power & Light, League of Women Voters of Washington, Natural Resource Defense Council, Northwest Energy Coalition, Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, Sierra Club and WaterWatch.“ Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty presents a once in a generation opportunity to reduce the impacts of flood control on the river that binds all of us together,” said John DeVoe, Executive Director For WaterWatch of Oregon.

“Today, Canada stores vast quantities of water in massive reservoirs behind huge dams. Coordinated flood risk management through the Treaty expires in just two years, abruptly shifting responsibility from Canada to reservoirs in the U.S. This is not how U.S. dams have operated. We lack comprehensive plans for this change. And, we have grave concerns that federal agencies will further de-prioritize the health of fish and wildlife in order to manage flood risk. Upsetting operations for fish and wildlife, agriculture, hydropower, and other river uses due to inadequate planning and minimal consultation is an unnecessary – and unacceptable – outcome.”These groups are not the first to express exercised concern over what might happen with no post-2024 plan for managing the Columbia River above and below the U.S.-Canada border. In June 2021, twenty-one members of the Northwest congressional delegation urged President Biden to enlist a “top-level White House led strategy” to ensure efforts to modernize the treaty is a top priority for the Administration. The lawmakers said under the current treaty the U.S. is “vastly overpaying Canada.”“As Members of Congress from the Pacific Northwest, we write regarding the Columbia River Treaty (Treaty) and the urgency of prompt negotiation of a modernized Treaty.

We stress the need for a top-level White House led strategy for the Treaty negotiations, as well as regular substantive updates to Members of Congress on the status of negotiations and estimated funding needs,” says the bipartisan letter.“ The 1964 Treaty provided the framework for the United States and Canada to provide certainty and benefits to both nations. Much has changed over the past 57 years. Population growth, changing weather patterns, clean energy and carbon reduction state-based requirements, and coal plant retirements are all driving transformational changes in our regions’ utility sector and broader economy. After almost a decade of work in the Northwest and British Columbia and 10 rounds of formal Treaty talks between the two countries, the time to press for completion of the Treaty modernization effort is now. The status quo is not acceptable to our region and comes at significant economic harm. “Federal funding will be necessary for flood risk management as soon as fiscal years 2023 and 2024. To date, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has not articulated a strategy to reach a flood risk management agreement with Canada or identified funding requirements for post-2024 flood control operational changes dictated within the Treaty.

Without regular, ongoing consultation, it may not be feasible for Congress to appropriate funds in a short time frame, in potentially variable amounts, especially considering budget constraints. This is made more unattainable if Congress does not receive funding justification through the budget process as early as possible. “The 2013 Regional Recommendation made clear that power benefits to Canada, known as the Canadian Entitlement, must be rebalanced to reflect an equitable sharing of the Treaty’s benefits. The U.S. government and others have studied the issue and concluded that the U.S. is vastly overpaying Canada for the benefits it receives, now more than $150 million per year. This cost is passed on to our constituent ratepayers. We oppose any assumption or negotiation position that our ratepayers will continue to indefinitely pay the outdated and unfair Canadian Entitlement or be responsible for flood control payments that should be a federal obligation.”

The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Peter DeFazio, Russ Fulcher, Mike Simpson, Matthew Rosendale, Suzanne Bonamici, Cliff Bentz, Earl Blumenauer, Kurt Schrader, Suzan DelBene, Rick Larsen, Jamie Herrera Beutler, Dan Newhouse, Derek Kilmer, Pramila Jayapal, Kim Schrier, Adam Smith, and Marilyn Strickland.The treaty has no end date, but either Canada or the United States can unilaterally terminate the agreement from September 2024 onwards, provided at least 10 years’ notice is given. This ability to terminate the treaty, and the changing flood-control provisions that will occur post 2024, whether the treaty is terminated or not, prompted both countries to undertake reviews of the treaty to determine its future.

These reviews occurred between 2011 and 2014. After completing their respective reviews, both Canada and the U.S. decided to move forward with negotiating a modernized Treaty. Negotiations between the countries began in May 2018. The 55-year-old treaty is touted by both negotiating teams as a model for transboundary relations. Both sides also believe the treaty is ripe for modernization to account for demographic, land use, and environmental changes that have occurred since the treaty took effect in 1964. Flood risk management and economically efficient hydropower were the original concerns of the treaty. The new element is ecosystem function, largely because of a long and steady decline in salmon populations.

Negotiators on both sides have said they are striving for flexibility – the ability to carry out adaptive management strategies in the midst of climate change, changing energy markets and future development throughout the region.Canada’s negotiating team is led by Global Affairs Canada and has representation from other federal departments, the Province of B.C., BC Hydro, and Columbia Basin Indigenous Nations as official observers. The Department of State leads a negotiating team consisting of representatives from the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, the Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The U.S. delegation for the March, 2020 round included expert-advisors from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. At a Richland town hall meeting in December, 2019 lead U.S. negotiator Jill Smail of the State Department, said that in negotiations, the U.S. is seeking a similar level of flood risk management that the current treaty has, but at a lower cost in the power transfer, known as the Canadian entitlement, which, she said, is “out of balance.” In this, the U.S. is seeking a more equitable benefit for Northwest ratepayers, she said.-Bill Crampton

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