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NW Fishletter #381, May 7, 2018

[2] Columbia River Treaty Negotiations Spotlighted At Two Spokane Events

Tribal inclusion. Canadian entitlements. Ecosystem-based function.

Those were just a few of the phrases on the lips of panelists, citizens and interest-group representatives speaking at a conference and a town hall meeting in Spokane on April 24 and 25, respectively, on modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.

The gatherings--featuring top U.S. and Canadian officials involved in the negotiations--provided the first public outreach by the U.S. Department of State after a long official silence following completion of the December 2013 Northwest regional recommendation.

Behind those phrases lie deeper issues. Indigenous people on both sides of the border who were left out of original treaty negotiations want a place at the table. Canadian citizens affected by dramatic reservoir drawdowns want more water-storage options in the U.S.. Tribes and others want the Columbia River's natural functions--from wetlands to fish habitat--to become a third purpose of a modernized treaty, beyond the original purposes of flood control and hydropower. And people representing irrigation, barge operations and hydropower want to ensure the treaty's original intent, and some of the benefits it provided, aren't forgotten.

Some provisions of the 1964 treaty that guides Columbia River operations between the U.S. and Canada are set to expire in 2024, unless renegotiated. In the U.S., federal agencies, impacted states, federally recognized tribes and numerous stakeholders embarked on a three-year review which included some 120 public sessions and more than 4,000 comments, and culminated with the regional recommendations. On Dec. 7, 2017, Canada agreed to begin the negotiation process.

A new round of public outreach, which kicked off April 24 at the Lake Roosevelt Forum, will help keep citizens informed about the negotiation process.

However, the details will remain at the negotiating table, Jill Smail, the U.S. Department of State's Columbia River Treaty negotiator, told about 250 people attending the conference. Smail has been with the State Department since 2001, and has worked on Middle East water negotiations and programs; she became CRT negotiator in October.

She introduced keynote speaker Francisco Palmieri, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, as "instrumental in getting Canada to come to the table." Palmieri heads diplomatic relations with nations from Canada to Chili, and advises the secretary of state and president.

He said U.S. objectives in negotiations will include careful management of flood risks and ensuring an economical and reliable power supply. "Obviously, Northwest energy markets have transformed--the Northwest is much more energy efficient," he said. "And, it has experienced lower-than-expected regional load growth, so we will take these and other changes into account."

He said the State Department also recognizes other benefits of the Columbia River system, now serving 36 ports and irrigating 5.3 million acres, as well as providing water for municipal and industrial uses. And, he said, both countries have a shared interest in providing for healthy populations of Pacific salmon, and a sustainable ecosystem for future generations.

Palmieri also said State recognizes its responsibility to consult with tribes, and to hold periodic meetings to update citizens throughout the negotiation process. "It is clear that people on both sides of the border see the value of continued shared benefits," he said, adding he's confident the two nations will find common ground.

During a following panel discussion, Gregory Lemermeyer, deputy director for Canada's Columbia River Treaty Renewal Unit in the U.S. Transboundary Affairs Division of Global Affairs, said Canada seeks to renew the treaty based on the original principles of creating benefits and equitable sharing of them.

He said in modernizing the treaty, Canada hopes to avoid new negative impacts, and to reduce existing impacts from the original treaty. And finally, he said, "Canada will be looking to establish sufficient flexibility through adaptive management and review mechanisms to meet the challenges of a changing climate, energy system, environment and society."

Lemermeyer also noted that Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, shortly after he was elected, that no relationship is more important to Canada than its relationship with its indigenous people. "We will work to learn more about their interests and desires," Lemermeyer said, and First Nations will be included in the renewed treaty's preparation, negotiation and implementation. He added that the Canadian government is also working closely with the Province of British Columbia and local stakeholders to develop a cooperative and collaborative treaty renewal.

The panel also included Canadians Deb Kozak, the mayor of Nelson, B.C., and chair of the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee; Bill Green, aquatic biologist for the Ktunaxa Nation Council; Martin Carver, hydrologist for the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative; and Jay Johnson, senior policy advisor for the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

Kozak said Canadian communities see ongoing negative impacts from the existing treaty, with huge fluctuations in water levels that leave docks on dry ground and large expanses of reservoir bottom exposed. Those impacts are hard on local economies that rely on tourism dollars, she said.

Carver added Canadians would like the new treaty to address environmental losses and include resilience to a changing climate. "The losses have been disproportionately felt in Canada," he said, adding, "We need to reduce U.S. dependence on Canadian storage for flood control through flood plain restoration in the U.S."

Green agreed reservoir levels and river flows are fundamentally important issues, and added that at least some aspects of salmon restoration also need addressing in the treaty. He said adaptive management systems should be built into the treaty to provide flexibility for things like climate change.

Johnson also said that, in addition to recognizing impacts to communities and people, a new treaty needs to realize the river itself is an ecosystem, and small mitigations throughout the system do not make up for massive impacts. "We have to start thinking of the river as one river," he said. "To steal a quote from [panelist] D.R. Michel, 'If we're standing on a floodplain, we're standing in the river.'"

Michel, executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes and a Colville tribal member, also said the treaty should treat the river as one system. "There should be benefits up and down the river, Not Canadian or U.S. benefits," he said.

Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart said he has appreciated an opportunity to work with local governments on both sides of the border. "I think the key issue is balance," he said. "We started with a good balance, but things have changed." He said he hopes the treaty will consider not only flood control and hydropower, but also providing adequate water supply to communities along the river.

Tom Karier, a Northwest Power and Conservation Council member representing Washington state, concluded the panel presentations by noting that objectives have changed since the original treaty was negotiated to build dams in Canada and Montana and determine how to share the costs and benefits from them.

Karier said the U.S. has made payments to Canada, and Canada was free to use those payments to lower power rates or mitigate for the impacts that concern Canadian residents. In the U.S., he said, the Northwest Power Act obligates BPA to spend some of its revenues to mitigate hydro-system impacts on fish and wildlife. "The job is not done, "he said.

Moving forward, Karier said, the key question is no longer whether or not to build dams. "The dams are there. They're Canadian dams. The U.S. doesn't own those," he said. The key question, he said, will be whether there will be a new treaty, or no new treaty. With no treaty, Canada can operate the dams any way it wants, he added, and no one anticipates the dams would be operated to benefit power, flood control, ecosystems and water supply in the U.S. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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