IN 1964, the Beatles made their first trip to America, gasoline cost 30 cents a gallon, and the United States and Canada inaugurated a treaty to share the benefits from the Columbia River. Fifty years later, the first two are a distant memory but the same Columbia River Treaty continues to govern the operations of several dams in Canada. But this may be changing.
Beginning next year, either country can decide to terminate the treaty, a move that would take effect exactly 10 years later.
In addition to the option of terminating the treaty or continuing the status quo, the U.S. and Canada have the option of modernizing the treaty. At the very least, a modernized treaty should recognize the new realities of our environment, including climate change and salmon restoration.
What should the United States do? It’s an important question for the citizens of Washington state. Once the river leaves Canada, it flows through our state to the ocean, including a stretch shared with Oregon.
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Its waters support endangered salmon and steelhead. The river generates low-cost, carbon-free power for the entire region from nine dams, including Grand Coulee and Bonneville.
It provides irrigation for the immense Columbia Basin Project. Barges traffic the lower river, which also provides recreational opportunities. If not managed properly, it could adversely impact cultural resources or flood our cities and counties.
We also pay most of the bill for the treaty. Washington ratepayers pay for 70 percent of the power returned to Canada as required by the treaty. There is no question, we have a major stake in its future.
The payment formula to share the benefits of this transboundary system, devised generations ago to compensate Canada for constructing and operating its projects, needs to be updated. The actual power value doesn’t justify continuing the current level of compensation to Canada, valued at up to $300 million a year.
There was no consideration given in the original treaty about the importance of flows for fish, wildlife and their habitats. In recent years, some important operations have been negotiated with Canada to benefit migrating salmon and steelhead, but we can expand opportunities to improve fish survival by applying recent scientific knowledge.
It’s also important to consider the growing needs for water in central Washington and the question of how climate change will affect all aspects of treaty operations.
Finally, as we consider opportunities to preserve and expand the benefits of the treaty, we should do our best to maintain the collaborative spirit with our Canadian partners that has served both countries so well for many years.
Now is the time to provide your comments about the future of the Columbia River Treaty to Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, designated as the U.S. entities for the treaty.
They are soliciting your input by Aug. 16 on a working draft that will ultimately be refined into recommendations and delivered to the U.S. State Department by the end of this year.
You can review the working draft, learn more about the treaty and submit your own recommendations at: www.crt2014-2024review.gov/
Tom Karier represents Washington state on the Sovereign Review Team, a committee reviewing the future of the Columbia River Treaty.