April 20, 2023
Lead U.S. government negotiators vowed to intensify their work to conclude a new Columbia River Treaty with Canada by early summer as they held a public listening session this week. The two countries have been in negotiations for over four years and a new agreement to upgrade or modernize the Treaty must be reached by the end of summer 2024.
In their three minutes of allowed speaking time, commenters mostly called on U.S. Treaty negotiators to ensure that “ecosystem function” is included with the other two purposes of the existing Treaty – flood risk management and recalculations of the Canadian entitlement. Commenters were from environmental groups, public utilities and one was from the Port of Kalama.
The final Treaty must be ratified by Canada and the U.S. no later than September 2024, lead negotiator Jill Smail of the U.S. Department of State told those listening in on a conference call Wednesday, April 19. Without a final agreement, she added, the U.S. “will lose access to preplanned flood risk space in Canadian reservoirs. Twenty of the 40 million acre feet that the Corps (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) now relies on (for flood control) are in Canada.” Access to that flood risk space would then be on an on-call basis, rather than on a predictable basis, she said.
That could profoundly affect the Northwest’s economy and environment downstream of Canada and also impact salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia River basin.
“Resolving the remaining sticking points by June is ambitious, but the United States believes it is achievable,” U.S. State Department negotiator Jill Smail said. “We have made significant progress. Although we still have tough issues to work through, we believe the uncertainty facing both countries in 2024 will continue to motivate both countries’ teams to reach timely agreement.”
Currently the two countries operate the reservoirs and dams under Assured Operations Plans. Without AOPs management would resort to uncertain “called upon” operations.
The most recent round of negotiations with Canada was March 22 – 23 in Washington, D.C. After that meeting President Joe Biden and Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed that “the Columbia River is a vital shared resource that underpins many lives and industries on both sides of the border and the watershed requires our attention and prompt coordination.”
The March session was the 16th negotiating session since Treaty talks began four years ago.
In the March negotiating session, the two delegations discussed managing flood risks after the Treaty regime changes in September 2024, strengthening cooperation to support aquatic life and the biodiversity of the Columbia River Basin, ongoing salmon reintroduction studies, and the interface between hydropower operations and Canada’s desire for greater flexibility in Treaty dam operations, the State Department said.
For more information on the March negotiations, see — CBB, April 7, 2023, CANADA, U.S. MEET FOR 16TH ROUND OF COLUMBIA RIVER TREATY NEGOTIATIONS; BIDEN, TRUDEAU ISSUE STATEMENT
The next round of negotiations is set for May 16 – 17 in British Columbia. That will be followed by another listening session.
This week’s listening session accommodated about 25 speakers, far fewer than those who had signed up for the one-and-a-half hour session, according to Roland Springer of the Bureau of Reclamation. Springer is the lead negotiator for the Bureau and he served as the moderator for the listening session.
Most of those who commented urged the panel to include ecosystem function as the third function of the Treaty, as well as to include reintroduction of salmon into the upper reaches of the Columbia basin above Grand Coulee Dam, and to account for climate change impacts on the hydro system and on the river’s health.
Ecosystem function includes strengthening flows to support salmon migration through a long-term agreement, instead of yearly renegotiations, Smail said.
“The old treaty is woefully out of date and shows little understanding of climate change and salmon,” said Joseph Bogaard of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. “The Treaty must be able to respond to climate change. A healthy river is not a cost, it is a benefit.”
He also called for the reestablishment of fish passage into the upper Columbia River.
“Renegotiations will have a profound impact on the river,” said Miles Johnson, legal director with Columbia RiverKeeper. “The amount of water and its timing coming out of Canada will impact the lower river.
“The inclusion of a voice for this river is important,” he continued. “BPA and the Corps are very effective running the hydro system, but not in recovering salmon. Put someone else in charge instead of those who have been so ineffective.”
Also commenting were representatives from Washington and Oregon public utilities who urged the negotiating team to “rebalance the Canadian electricity entitlement.” Suzanne Grassell of the Chelan County Public Utility District said that imbalance is costing U.S. electricity ratepayers as much as $300 million a year, an amount that is causing higher than necessary costs for her utility.
The Canadian electricity entitlement is the power benefit the U.S. sends to Canada, according to Smail. The original agreement favored Canada, and “this imbalance has become greater over time,” she said.
George Caan, Washington Public Utility District Association, said that according to a recent report by the Washington Department of Commerce, some 20 percent of utility customers are paying more than 6 percent of their income for electricity. “It’s important to look at the impact of power costs of the entitlement on low income customers,” Caan said.
Scott Simms, CEO of the Public Power Council, supported changes in the power exchange agreement and flood control. He said adding ecosystem function complicates the Treaty and, although his organization doesn’t oppose adding it as the third function of the Treaty, he did say that taxpayers, not ratepayers should pay for it.
“BPA and the mid-Columbia utilities already fund the largest salmon recovery program in the world,” he said. “Any ecosystem function must recognize this and must be paid by taxpayers.”
Michelle Adams representing Temco, a grain export terminal at the Port of Kalama, encouraged the negotiators to come to an agreement that had few changes to current river operations as possible. “We rely on predictable river flows,” she said, adding that some 51 million tons of product are transported by barge on the Columbia River every year.
“The changes that have been proposed, especially those relating to higher high flows in the spring and lower low flows in the fall, could significantly impact vessel handling and cargo movement,” she said, adding that higher flows reduce navigation safety. Lower flows could also put draft restrictions on some ships.
Jennifer Savage, Department of State, concluded saying that there wasn’t enough time to get to everyone who wanted to talk, but that they or any other person can still submit comments to Columbiarivertreaty@state.gov
The U.S. Department of State leads a negotiating team consisting of representatives from the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. delegation also included expert-advisors from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
As has been the case since 2019, the Canadian negotiation delegation in March included representatives of the Government of Canada, the Province of B.C. and the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations. In addition to federal agencies, the American delegation included expert-advisors from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.