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NW Fishletter #386, Oct. 2, 2018

[10] Negotiators Visit Portland for Town Hall on Columbia River Treaty

Benefits provided by hydropower took at back seat to concerns about flood control, ecosystem functions and tribal rights during an hour-long comment period on the Columbia River Treaty modernization in front of the U.S. Department of State's chief negotiator Jill Smail and other federal officials on Sept. 6.

The town hall meeting at a Bonneville Power Administration hearing room in Portland featured opening remarks by Smail and an introduction to four members of her negotiating team, followed by questions and comments from the audience.

Smail held the first town hall meeting in Spokane, Wash., in April and reiterated the negotiating team's commitment to follow the lead of local stakeholders and sovereigns five years ago, which resulted in the Regional Recommendations.

Smail recognized the treaty's success in managing floods, and providing hydropower, benefiting millions of people in the U.S. and Canada. She also mentioned the additional benefits from the treaty to irrigation, municipal water use, industrial use, navigation, recreation and flow augmentation from treaty-related agreements.

Giving a nod to the 70th anniversary of the nearby Vanport flood in 1948, where some 18,000 people lost their homes and several people died, Smail also noted that current provisions to pay Canada to store water that prevents flooding expire in 2024.

"After 2024, the Treaty's flood risk management provisions change to a less defined approach in terms of how we work together and compensate Canada for its role in managing water that flows across the border," she said. "By modernizing the Columbia River Treaty regime, we seek continued, careful management of flood risk. We also want to ensure a reliable and economical power supply and improve ecosystem benefits."

Some people commenting did call attention to the treaty's hydroelectric system.

Speaking for about 100 publicly-owned utilities, Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, told the U.S. negotiating team that the treaty's assumptions regarding its power provisions are outdated. "We rely on this incredible, clean hydropower system, and it's a lynchpin to the region," he said.

He said he supports the Regional Recommendation and its three main goals for power, flood control and ecosystem functions, and urged negotiators to include a balanced approach that will provide a net benefit to ratepayers in the region.

"When it comes to electric power, Oregonians get over 40 percent from the Columbia River system," commented Bill Bradbury, who represented Oregon on the sovereign review team, and spoke on behalf of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's natural resource office.

Bradbury spoke of the many critical assets that are protected from flooding through the treaty, including Portland International Airport; several ports that import and export numerous products including the largest wheat-exporting facilities in the nation; and transportation systems including rail systems and highways needed for commercial freight.

He asked the team to continue to coordinate with Canada for reservoir storage, to enhance the system's flexibility and improve ecosystem functions, and to ensure that the citizens of Oregon continue to have access to clean, reliable and affordable power.

Several people taking the microphone raised concerns about the potential for a new treaty to lose the assured water storage in the current treaty, and spoke against a "called upon" system, in which the U.S. would ask Canada to increase its storage under high-risk situations when U.S. reservoirs are full. It's the flood control mechanism that the treaty will revert to after 2024, if a new treaty is not in place.

"Please remember the tragic losses of Vanport," said Maryhelen Kincaid, a resident and board member of one of four Multnomah County Drainage Districts. "Consider the impact to citizens working behind our levies. Don't let your decision contribute to history repeating itself when it doesn't have to."

Giving the Columbia River ecosystem an equal weight at the negotiating table was a major theme among environmental groups who sent representatives. Miles Johnson, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said the treaty has provided enormous benefits in terms of power, transportation, and flood risk management, but those benefits have come at the expense of the environment.

"The Columbia River has been the lifeblood, and continues to be the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest," he said, adding that the region essentially sacrificed the greatest salmon-producing river in the world in order to control floods and produce power. He asked the team to put the ecosystem on the same footing as the treaty's other two main objectives--flood control and hydropower production.

Several people also mentioned their support for tribal representation during negotiations. Stan Thayne, a professor of anthropology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., told the team that he believes providing indigenous tribes with representation on the negotiating team is both a legal and moral obligation. He said groups that represent multiple Columbia River Basin tribes, such as the Upper Columbia United Tribes and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, could come up with a couple of representatives. "I know there has been consultation, but it isn't the same as direct representation," he said.

Smail responded to several speakers, but noted she could not provide details about what's been discussed in the two negotiating sessions with Canada so far, as she does not want to compromise those discussions. She said the sessions have been productive, and announced that a third round of negotiations will take place in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 17 and 18.

She said continuing comments and suggestions are welcome, and can be sent to ColumbiaRiverTreaty@state.gov. Another town hall meeting is being organized for early 2019. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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