By Carol Ryan Dumas
Sept. 19, 2022
Pacific Northwest groups representing conservation, clean energy, wildlife, fish and other interests are urging U.S. officials to modernize the Columbia River Treaty to avoid what they describe as an ecosystem collapse.
The 32 organizations sent a letter to the U.S. State Department, Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging them to inform the region on efforts to overhaul the treaty and involve citizens and tribes in decisions.
“Chronic hot water is killing salmon and degrading Columbia and Snake River health today, with worse coming. A modern treaty must give Northwest people greater standing and more tools to withstand this rising damage,” the groups said.
Signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964, the treaty coordinates flood control and power generation through a system of dams and reservoirs in Canada and the U.S.
The groups are asking U.S. negotiators to partner with Canada to add “ecosystem function” — the health of the river — as a third, co-equal treaty purpose. They are also urging the administration to include Columbia Basin tribes in treaty governance, matching Canada’s recognition of the role of indigenous nations.
The groups' final request concerns flood control.
The U.S. currently benefits from a collaborative flood risk management plan that is dependent upon assured Canadian water storage to minimize flood risk in the U.S. That critical collaboration ends on Sept. 16, 2024, if negotiations fail to extend it, the groups said.
There are signs that Congress is preparing for an unspecified “called upon” operation of reservoirs after that date, they said.
A “called upon” operation would require the U.S. to ask Canada for storage of floodwaters on an annual basis, as opposed to the treaty’s current six-year assured operating plans.
“Such operations have a high risk of further degrading already inadequate flows and cooling operations from critical reservoirs for salmon, other fish and overall river health. This risk compounds if ‘called upon’ operations take place under the current treaty, in which for 58 years salmon and river health have been at best secondary and at worst ignored,” they said.
The treaty’s Permanent Engineering Board warns the general lack of planning leaves “...no guidance on the operation of the Canadian storage system with significant consequences in both Canada and the U.S. for power generation, flood risk management and social and environmental objectives,” they said.
If a new agreement isn’t reached, the terms of the current treaty will shift responsibility for flood control from Canada to the U.S., potentially forcing operational changes at eight dams and reservoirs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said in a press release.
Given the lack of transparency to date, the groups “are increasingly worried about how the federal government will deal with uncertainties and operational changes while protecting fish and wildlife, honoring tribal obligations and supporting river communities,” he said.
The U.S. lacks comprehensive plans for the shift of responsibility, said John DeVoe, executive director for WaterWatch of Oregon.
“And we have grave concerns that federal agencies will further deprioritize the health of fish and wildlife to manage flood risk. Upsetting operations for fish and wildlife, agriculture, hydropower and other river uses due to inadequate planning and minimal consultation is an unnecessary and unacceptable outcome,” he said.