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NW Fishletter #392, April 1, 2019

[6] Montana Seeks Compensation For Libby Dam Storage In Next Treaty

Sixteen Montana lawmakers made a 400-mile round trip to Kalispell March 20 to ensure Columbia River Treaty negotiators got their message: Montana wants compensation for the impacts of Libby Dam, and assurances that in the new treaty Canada cannot divert extra water from the Kootenai River.

After passing a joint House and Senate resolution earlier in the day, Montana State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) handed an official copy of their request to Jill Smail, chief Columbia River Treaty negotiator with the U.S. Department of State, at a town hall meeting on the treaty in Kalispell, Mont.

Cuffe, whose Senate district hosts Libby in Lincoln County, thanked her and representatives from the U.S. entity--the Bonneville Power Administration, NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--for coming to northwestern Montana to listen to people who were deeply impacted by the construction and operation of Libby Dam.

"We have felt disrespected, left out of the process, ignored," he told the negotiating team. "This means a lot that you came to Montana and came this close to the Lincoln County line."

Their visit was the third town hall meeting following a fifth round of negotiations with Canada to modernize the 1964 treaty. It was originally negotiated as a means to control flooding by holding back water in four huge reservoirs--three in Canada and one in Montana--and to share in the hydropower that was created by that storage.

Smail said in addition to using guidelines set out by the U.S. Entity's regional recommendation, she is hosting town hall meetings to hear directly from people in the Pacific Northwest who are most impacted.

She declined to answer any specific questions about ongoing negotiations, but noted that their objectives include continued management of flood risk, ensuring an economical and reliable power supply, and improving ecosystem functions for the benefit of fish and wildlife in both countries. She said negotiators are looking ahead to how the modernized treaty can be mutually beneficial, and that she's confident they'll find common ground.

While Smail's Kalispell remarks were similar to those she made at her last town hall meeting in Portland, the issues raised by those attending the Montana meeting were far different--assured water storage to prevent flooding, improved benefits for fish and wildlife, and the lack of tribal representation at the table were the top issues.

This time, Montana senators and representatives lined up at the microphone and, one after another, urged compensation for the benefits that Libby Dam provides--and the sacrifices that Montana residents have made and continue to make because of it.

"Mostly, people downstream are saying, 'We don't want our benefit reduced.' We're saying, 'We gave up a lot and haven't been compensated. We think we should be,'" Cuffe said in an interview with NW Fishletter.

According to their resolution, SJ 12--which unanimously passed the Senate and was one vote shy of unanimity in the House--Libby Dam produced 2.56 million MWh of power in 2017 at a net value of almost $127 million. It holds back an average of 5.8 million acre-feet of water in the 90-mile long Lake Koocanusa, half of which is in Canada. Dedicated in 1975, the dam flooded thousands of acres in Montana's Lincoln County. It's fed by the Kootenai River, which is the third largest tributary to the Columbia River, providing almost 20 percent of the lower basin's total water.

Joined by several residents and commissioners from Lincoln County, state lawmakers described the loss of timber and cattle production caused by the flooded lands, along with tax revenue from both the land and industries.

They said individual families who lost their land were not justly compensated, and those who now live around the lake experience health problems from the "dustbowl" created when water from the lake is drained and the silt is exposed to air and wind. And they noted that the tourism now generated by the lake suffers from unpredictable lake levels.

Lawmakers also asked the negotiating team to take out a provision in the current treaty that allows Canada to divert up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Kootenai River at Canal Flats, British Columbia, before it flows into Montana. While Canada has never used the provision, it would have a devastating effect on the river, and on Libby Dam operations, the lawmakers said.

"Montana and Lincoln County have sacrificed to make the river system beneficial to all," Sen. Keith Regier told the panel. "Compensation needs to be fair to those on both sides of the border."

According to the treaty now in place, Canada is entitled to half of the downstream power benefits that were made possible by three hydroelectric dams built in Canada to store water in the upper Columbia River in addition to compensation for the dams' flood control benefits.

In an interview, Cuffe noted that Canada has been well compensated for the three dams it built to store water for flood control and hydroelectric generation, but Montana was left out of the equation. Yet Libby Dam has provided the same benefits to both the U.S. and Canada, since water held back from the Kootenai River then flows into Canada and is used to generate power at seven hydroelectric facilities in Canada before it comes back into the U.S. "I've suggested maybe Canada owes us for flood protection and the ability to generate power," he said.

Cuffe said it's up to negotiators to figure out how Montana should be compensated, although he has plenty of ideas. One method is to give Montana 20 percent of Canada's entitlements, which have ranged from $250 million to $300 million annually, he said.

Alternatively, he said, Montana could be compensated with a certain percentage of the power generated by Libby Dam and the water as it's released to generate power through the system. Basically, he said, "Montana should be compensated on equal par with Canada. Why would you treat Montana any differently than you'd treat a foreign state?" he asked.

But compensation for Montana wasn't the only issue raised during the meeting. Residents and visitors from other states asked the chief negotiator to ensure that the new treaty provides for the health of the ecosystem, continues to provide a clean and reliable source of power, and prevents major changes in water releases that could affect river transportation, irrigation, recreation and the stability of levees.

Gary Wiens, interim CEO of the Montana Electric Cooperatives' Association, told the negotiator that any costs for flood control should come from federal appropriations, as it does in other regions of the country. He also urged the negotiator to push for retaining more hydropower benefits for ratepayers in the U.S., noting that assumptions made in the first treaty that gave so many of the benefits from hydropower to Canada are no longer valid.

Paul Arrington, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, talked about the need for certainty in the management of water that flows down the Snake and Columbia rivers for other water uses, and added that the modernized treaty should not change any state-based water rights or laws, in particular a 2004 Snake River water rights agreement that is sometimes referred to as the Nez Perce Agreement.

Jim McKenna, natural resources policy advisor for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, said he came to Montana to understand the unique concerns coming from the upper watershed and also to reiterate the importance of all three purposes of the treaty--including maintaining a reliable source of power, ensuring that the river is operated for strong flood management, and elevating ecosystem concerns to an equal footing with power and flood control.

Smail said negotiators continue to meet regularly with Columbia Basin tribes. She said she plans to host another town hall meeting sometime after the next round of negotiations on April 10 and 11 in Victoria, B.C., but has not yet determined a date or location. -K.C. Mehaffey

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