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NW Fishletter #382, June 4, 2018

[1] Opening Days of Treaty Negotiations 'Very Productive,' U.S. Officials Say

After meeting with Canadian officials in Washington, D.C., on May 29-30 to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty, the U.S. Department of State announced the next round of discussions will be held Aug. 15-16 in British Columbia.

"We just wrapped up two very productive days," a senior U.S. government official told reporters during a brief conference call May 31.

The official said Francisco Palmieri, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere , welcomed the U.S. and Canadian negotiating teams, and thanked them for "more than 50 years of remarkable coordination."

In their first two days, negotiators discussed objectives, outlined the scope of negotiations and reaffirmed their commitment to cooperation, the official said. No timeline has been set.

The U.S. negotiating team includes Jill Smail, chief negotiator for the U.S. State Department, along with representatives from BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

U.S. officials on the conference call offered few details about specific topics discussed, but said that the U.S.'s main goals are for a modernized treaty that includes carefully managing flood risks, ensuring a reliable and economical power supply, and better addressing ecosystem concerns.

One official emphasized that the 2013 Regional Recommendation lays out the U.S. negotiating team's key objectives. "This is our guide; this is our foundation; this is something the region worked on collaboratively," the official said.

When asked by NW Fishletter whether the current treaty's $250 million to $350 million annual payment to Canada--known as the Canadian Entitlement--is on the table, the official said that issue will also be guided by the Regional Recommendation, which points to an imbalance in the sharing of downstream power benefits. That sharing of hydropower benefits is in exchange for Canada storing water at three large reservoirs in British Columbia, and releasing it for hydropower generation downstream.

In answers to other questions, one official said she is unaware of any discussions to merge the Columbia River Treaty negotiations with the Trump administration's recent announcement around renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. "There's no information that suggests these negotiations will be impacted, at this point," the official said. She also said the State Department is concerned about the potential impacts of British Columbia mining, and said there are ongoing bilateral negotiations with Canada to resolve those issues.

An official also said that, with respect to climate change, both governments have brought up the issue as it relates to the treaty, and will continue to monitor new information and seek to improve adaptive management within the treaty to better mitigate impacts from a changing climate.

Responding to criticism that neither American Indian tribes nor Canadian First Nations have a seat at the negotiating table, one official said that they are deeply grateful to tribes that contributed to the Regional Recommendation, and that the State Department will continue to consult with tribes and other stakeholders on a regular basis throughout the process. Another town hall session, open to the public, is being scheduled for later this summer. The agency's first town hall was held in Spokane, Wash., on April 24, the day after top officials attended the Lake Roosevelt Forum, which included Palmieri as its keynote speaker.

Palmieri, in his written remarks at the opening of negotiations, said the treaty has provided substantial benefits to millions of people on both sides of the border, with added benefits to irrigation, municipal and industrial water use, navigation, recreation and to the river's ecosystem. "Around the world, this treaty serves as a model for transboundary water cooperation--and rightly so. Americans and Canadians alike should be proud of the invaluable cooperation that has contributed to the development of the regional economy on both sides of the border. But we don't live in 1964. There is a whole swath of arrangements established under this durable yet flexible treaty that should be modernized," his opening statement said.

Many of the needed modernizations are in the technical mechanisms and arrangements that become the day-to-day realities, he said. "Good treaties make good neighbors. The United States and Canada have a long, positive history of engagement on the Columbia River. We expect to continue that cooperative spirit when we engage in negotiations starting today," Palmieri concluded in his opening remarks.

For those involved in Columbia River basin energy and fish issues, the re-negotiations have been much anticipated. Viewpoints from the Canadian, tribal and ratepayers perspectives were brought together at a forum in Wenatchee on May 8. There, panelist Steve Wright, former BPA administrator and current general manager at Chelan County PUD, said he's "deeply disappointed" by the lack of action and transparency surrounding the U.S. Department of State's efforts to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty. He's also hopeful a renegotiated treaty will include the main points from a regional recommendation he helped craft more than four years ago.

Wright--who first engaged in CRT issues while working for BPA in the mid-1990s, when the original Canadian Entitlement return agreements needed to be renegotiated--offered a history of the treaty and talked about the importance of renegotiating it on May 8, at a panel discussion that drew about 75 people to the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center in central Washington.

The event also included a tribal perspective from John Sirois, member and former chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and committee coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT); and a Canadian perspective from Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, author of "A River Captured" and a U.S. citizen who has lived in Canada for almost 30 years.

Wright, who chaired the U.S. Entity designated as the lead for implementing the treaty and is now one of three co-chairs of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, offered a viewpoint of Northwest electric customers and hydroelectric utilities. "We don't need to be at the table," he said, adding that these are government-to-government negotiations. "But we need more real-time understanding of what's going on so we can provide more input."

After the appointment of a new CRT negotiator, Jill Smail, was announced in October, U.S. officials only recently reconnected with the public over the treaty. Smail attended two events in Spokane in April, including a conference and town hall meeting where she answered questions and heard comments from the public.

While in Spokane, she promised to consult with U.S. tribes, but did not offer them a seat at the negotiating table, as some tribes had sought.

Smail also explained why the State Department ended the efforts of the Collaborative Modeling Work Group, which included representatives from Canada and the U.S. delving into technical issues. Smail said some people complained the group was too inclusive, while others thought it was not inclusive enough. The meetings ended, she said, so Canada and the U.S. could transition into the negotiation phase and allow each country to work on their respective government positions.

In a May 10 email to NW Fishletter, a U.S. Department of State spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs said her agency is working to set a date to begin negotiations, and will continue to regularly engage regional stakeholders, Northwest tribes, state government officials and others during the negotiations with Canada. Additional public meetings are being planned in the Northwest, but none have been scheduled. Comments and questions from the public are welcome at future meetings, or by emailing

In Wenatchee May 8, Wright said he's frustrated that more than four years have passed since states, tribes and federal agencies found consensus on main recommendations from the Pacific Northwest, known as the Regional Recommendation.

But, Wright said, he is also hopeful that action to renew the treaty could occur this year, and that the new treaty will honor the Northwest recommendation, which was signed by every member of the Northwest congressional delegation, both Republicans and Democrats.

Wright said the recommendations address three key issues with the existing treaty, which expires in 2024. One is that a healthy and resilient ecosystem should be added as a third purpose of the treaty, along with flood control and hydropower. Also, Wright said, the cost of flood control should not be paid for by hydroelectric customers, but through the federal government, just as it is in other parts of the country, such as flood control along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

And additionally, he said, payments to Canada for constructing the three Canadian dams built as a result of the treaty need to be renegotiated. "There's no doubt the U.S. is overpaying," he said, and that directly affects electric customers.

Wright said that when the treaty was first negotiated, Canada was to receive annual payments worth half of the additional power generated downstream from the water held back by Canadian dams until it is needed later in the year. Wright said before Canada signed the treaty, it changed the formula so it would receive higher payments in the earlier years, to ensure it could pay off the cost of constructing the dams.

"Canada has enjoyed really extraordinary benefits," he said, noting that the cost of construction was paid off in 10 years, and instead of the value of hydroelectric power reducing over time, as believed, it increased.

When the treaty was signed, he said, those payments amounted to about $38 million in today's U.S. dollars. In more recent years, he said, Canada has received about $200 million annually. He said the payments, known as the Canadian Entitlement, must be reduced to reflect the actual value of added power from the water held behind Canadian dams.

"We don't begrudge the Canadians a great deal," he said, but that deal was made with the recognition the value of hydropower would change, and the new treaty would take into account the new value.

From her Canadian viewpoint, Pearkes did not dispute Wright's figures or historical account, but said instead of the value of hydroelectric power, the new treaty should consider today's values that are not economic in nature. She showed photos of tribal fishermen holding up summer Chinook weighing up to 100 pounds, and noted that today's fish more often average 60 pounds.

There were also slides of the Canadian dams under construction, and the large amount of land now under water after spring runoff, only to be drained as power needs arise and flooding threat subsides. The dams destroyed the local ecology, and flooded homes, farms and tribal lands--including archeological sites that were never moved or preserved, she said.

"It's not a pretty chapter," Pearkes said. "There were forced removals. People who did not want to leave their land were forced," she said. "It's important to know that, for this model treaty--there was no local consultation. No one knew about these negotiations until the treaty was signed."

Pearkes said the Canadian government had already given up its abundant salmon runs, lost when Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942. Diplomatic letters show that the U.S. asked Canada before the construction if it minded that salmon runs would be blocked, "and Canada said, 'No,'" she said. Six years later, a 1948 flood brought attention to the destruction along the Columbia from Vancouver, Wash., to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and ultimately led to negotiations that resulted in construction of three dams in Canada--Duncan, Hugh Keenleyside and Mica--and one in Montana--Libby Dam--to help control future floods.

She listed numerous species that suffered because of the dams, with their habitat flooded. As for the new treaty, and the Canadian Entitlement of half of the value of power generated downstream from water that's held back, she said, "Absolutely, forever. Because of the losses shared."

Sirois said from a cultural context, the new treaty should do as much as it can to restore the environment and the fish that once returned to the upper Columbia River, but are now blocked by both Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams. "We're here to protect the fish, water and animals," he said, describing a sacred relationship with them. "When we work as hard as we can for them, it's for the benefit of all people. These salmon don't have Colville names, or Spokane names. They're for everyone."

Sirois noted the salmon ceremonies the Colville Tribe holds in different locations, to call the salmon back--one of the largest at Kettle Falls now under water held back by Grand Coulee Dam, where salmon haven't returned for decades.

Another, he said, is on the Icicle River near Leavenworth, Wash., where he goes every year to fish with his daughters, because he is part Wenatchi Indian and retains that right. But members of many of the other 11 tribes that make up the Colville confederation still have nowhere to fish, even though their treaties promised them that right.

"We strongly feel that 80 years without salmon in those areas is long enough," he said. "We see it as an equity environmental justice issue." In addition to tribal treaty rights, Sirois noted that colder water in the upper tributaries could help salmon survive through warmer temperatures predicted with climate change. He said forests with streams that have active salmon runs are healthier, and more fire- and drought-resistant.

Sirois also commended much of the work that's been done in the United States by PUDs, BPA and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to mitigate for the impacts of hydroelectric dams. But he noted most of the funding is spent on the lower Columbia, while all seven of the salmon and steelhead species in the upper Columbia are either threatened or endangered.

Tribes, he said, are hopeful that the treaty, and funds from the Council and BPA, can help push forward the plan by tribes to reintroduce salmon above both Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.

Despite their different perspectives, all three speakers agreed the treaty should be renegotiated, and that the ecosystem should become a third purpose of a new treaty.

"The Columbia River Treaty represents a hard-fought bargain that has worked very well, but is desperately in need of modernization," Wright said, adding, "We hope this is the year for action." -K.C. Mehaffey

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