Issue comments, feedback, suggestions
NW Fishletter #384, August 1, 2018

[2] Conflicting Columbia River Uses May Need Balancing In New Treaty, Negotiators Say

The Columbia River Treaty's lead negotiators listened to varied and sometimes opposing views from both Canadians and Americans with a stake in a new treaty, during the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region's annual summit in Spokane on July 25.

Jill Smail, the treaty's lead negotiator for the U.S. Department of State, and Sylvain Fabi, lead negotiator for Global Affairs Canada, heard from nearly three dozen stakeholders, tribal leaders and legislative representatives from Canada and the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon during the summit's Columbia River Treaty roundtable listening session.

Among the concerns expressed were the uncompensated sacrifices of Lincoln County, Mont., from Libby Dam; the ongoing impacts of three dams in Canada that claimed prime forests and farmland and isolated communities; the need to recognize fish and the environment for future generations; the need to recalculate the hydropower compensation to Canada paid by American electric customers; and the importance of the river to agriculture and transportation.

In remarks before the roundtable, Smail and Fabi offered positive comments and confidence in their work to date toward a fair and modernized treaty benefiting both countries. The two complimented each other frequently, smiled and nodded at one another's remarks, and Fabi even commented on the similarity of their prepared statements. "It doesn't mean we are agreeing on everything," he said. "But it does mean we are on solid footing."

Smail called Canada "our best ally," and said members of both teams have been building a common understanding by taking joint tours of several Columbia River Basin dams, including Libby, The Dalles and Grand Coulee dams in the U.S., and Hugh Keenleyside and Mica dams in Canada.

She talked about seeking to ensure benefits are shared equitably, and said that the fact the Northwest has become much more energy-efficient and has experienced much lower load growth than expected must be taken into consideration in a new treaty.

Smail reiterated her commitment to using the Regional Recommendations as a guide. She also said both governments need to determine together how to seek opportunities to better address ecosystem functions in a way that "appropriately balances" with the treaty's other main objectives--flood control and hydropower.

Fabi also discussed the need to balance the goal of ecosystem functions in a new treaty. "These are complex issues with many interests at stake, as we will hear this morning, and some of these also contradict each other. It doesn't mean one's right," he said. In a new treaty, he said, Canada hopes to modernize the treaty based on the original goals of creating and equitably sharing benefits; to avoid negative impacts on the environment and communities, and to seek opportunities to focus on ecosystem functions; and to provide flexibility in the treaty through adaptive management.

Jill Smail, lead negotiator for the U.S. Department of State, and Sylvain Fabi,lead negotiator for Global Affairs Canada. Photo: K.C. Mehaffey

"Both countries have also agreed to study the feasibility of salmon reintroduction in the upper Columbia River," he said.

As Fabi predicted, some statements from around the table came from vastly different perspectives. Andrew Munro, senior manager at Grant County PUD and a member of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, said the rebalancing of equitable power benefit should be a top priority of a new treaty.

Compensation to Canada, which currently costs U.S. ratepayers about $150 million a year in exchange for storing water, is between 70 and 90 percent more than the downstream benefits that are generated. The payment is for about 3 billion kWh a year, he said.

In addition, he said, the U.S. government--and not electric customers--should compensate Canada for flood control, just as it pays for flood control in other parts of the country.

Some Canadian stakeholders, however, suggested the compensation isn't enough. Kathy Eichenberger, executive director for the Columbia River Treaty at the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, told the negotiators they need to look back at treaty harms done to communities--where some 2,300 people were displaced; to indigenous people, who were not consulted; and to the environment, and seek to redress some of those harms.

Deb Kozak, mayor of Nelson, B.C., said 12 communities and many of the roads leading to them were flooded when the reservoirs were filled, covering 15.5 million acres, isolating communities and destroying forests and farms.

"These are industrial reservoirs, they are not lakes," she said. "They were advertised to be lakes with great recreational benefits," she said.

But a tourist economy cannot be developed when water levels fluctuate as much as a 15-story building, and drawdowns leave behind miles of dust flats detrimental to human health and a healthy ecosystem. "We're saying, 'Enough is enough.' Now that we know more, we can do better," Kozak said.

Katrine Conroy, B.C. Minister Responsible for the Columbia River Treaty, added that a lot of anger and distrust remains, even after 50 years. "I think it's important to say, as we enter into this treaty, we have to make sure we come out with benefits that are equitable to nations on both sides of the border," she said. "And the bottom line--we have to think about the future, our kids and grandkids."

Meanwhile, commissioners from Lincoln County, Mont., said they'd like some of the compensation Canada now receives to help pay for what it lost, and continues to lose, from the construction of Libby Dam.

The dam holds back 20 percent of the water held for flood control and hydropower through the treaty. Commissioner Mike Cole said both of his grandparents' homes were lost to Lake Koocanusa behind the dam, and the county's economic base in ranching, mining and logging disappeared. Once one of the wealthiest counties in Montana, it's now "close to dead last," he said.

While several people spoke of inserting ecosystem function as a third priority of the treaty, Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy offered one of the most impassioned pleas. Dressed in full regalia, he stood and asked, "I have to ask everyone in this room, What do you value? What do you truly value?"

He said the Canadian Entitlement to compensation has been shared by those who have reaped the benefits to "turn on light switches and build in floodplains." At the same time, temperatures in the river have risen beyond the salmon survival rate. Goudy also told the negotiators that, by law, his nation should have a seat at the table.

Others spoke of their reliance on the river, as it operates today.

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said farmers rely heavily on barges to get their products to market, including 60 percent of Washington's wheat, which is barged down the river--a reliable and environmentally responsible form of transportation.

Tom Myrum, executive director of the Washington State Water Resources Association, said irrigators rely on water from the Columbia River to water all kinds of crops. Any changes in the storage system that lowers reservoirs below their intakes would have a major impact on farmers. "We don't mind the status quo," he told the negotiators.

The many people concerned about the Columbia River Treaty didn't surprise Tom Karier, a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, who represented Washington state when many interests were brought together to come up with a Regional Recommendation on the treaty.

Karier said whether they rely on hydropower from the Columbia River, eat food from crops irrigated by it, or benefit from the economy generated by the system, "Every single one of our seven million residents are affected," he said.

Karier said the Regional Recommendation offers a broad outlook, and he told negotiators that each one of them should be addressed. He said he thinks renegotiations provide an opportunity to improve upon the current treaty. He mused that the experience could be similar to his recent decision to replace his old, well-loved car with a new one. "It's safer, cheaper and better for the environment. I think we need to do that with the treaty."

Many participants spent the afternoon touring Grand Coulee Dam, the largest hydropower producer in the United States, with a total generating capacity of 6,809 MW.

Participants were also invited to continue the tour in British Columbia on July 26 and 27, visiting several significant spots on the Columbia River in Canada, including Castlegar, Hugh Keenleyside Dam and Nakusp.

A town hall led by Smail will be held in Portland on Sept. 6 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the BPA Rates Hearing Room, and is open to the public. The public is invited to submit questions in advance to More information about the town hall meeting, including call-in details, is available through the Federal Register notice.

The Portland event will take place soon after a second negotiation session scheduled for Aug. 15-16 in British Columbia, and in advance of the scheduled third round of negotiations Oct. 17-18 in Portland. Negotiations began May 29-30 this year with an initial meeting in Washington, D.C. Leading up to this, Smail led a town hall in Spokane on April 25 and spoke at the Lake Roosevelt Forum conference. -K.C. Mehaffey

Subscriptions and Feedback
Subscribe to the Fishletter notification e-mail list.
Send e-mail comments to the editor.

THE ARCHIVE :: Previous NW Fishletter issues and supporting documents.

NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
Phone: (206) 285-4848 Fax: (206) 281-8035

Energy Jobs Portal
Energy Jobs Portal
Check out the fastest growing database of energy jobs in the market today.
What's New

NW Wholesale Power Markets Conference: Transition in Progress--Wednesday, May 15, 2019, Portland, Ore.

Substation Northwest Podcast, Episode 4
Taste editorial excellence.