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Save Our Wild Salmon

Without renewal of a treaty, water draw-downs on the Columbia could endanger salmon and other fish.

Columbia River Peter MarbachColumbia River © Peter Marbach

Saturday, June 8, 2024
By Robert Heinith and Joseph Bogaard

In 1964, the United States and Canada established a treaty to jointly manage the Columbia River. The treaty’s objectives were limited to coordinated flood control and hydropower generation for a river the two nations shared.

Under the agreement, the U.S. provided Canada with $64 million up front for assured flood control and an incremental increase in power production. In return, Canada built three large storage dams in the upper watershed to generate hydropower and protect the U.S from large floods. At that time, the Columbia still produced some of the world’s great salmon runs. Now, likely changes in treaty operations could deliver a new blow to the basin’s struggling salmon populations.

Since 2018, U.S. and Canadian governments have been negotiating terms for a renewed treaty. Unless the two nations strike a deal, the treaty’s coordinated flood management provisions will expire on Sept. 16, dramatically shifting the burden for flood control to U.S. reservoirs.

If this occurs, 60 years of coordinated flood-risk management will transition to “called upon.” Millions of acre-feet of water storage capacity in Canada will no longer be available unless forecasted floods at The Dalles Dam, along the Washington-Oregon border, exceed 600,000 cubic feet per second. And the U.S. will have to pay Canada for this storage. This will likely disrupt current water management and undermine the health of the river by requiring more frequent and deeper winter drawdowns in many Columbia Basin reservoirs, including Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Roosevelt could be lowered by an additional 30 feet compared to current operations.

That’s bad news for Columbia and Snake River fish.

Deep winter drawdowns at Lake Roosevelt will require using the river’s annual spring runoff to fill the reservoir first; significantly diminishing downstream river flow.

Peak spring runoff is the lifeblood of the river. It carries juvenile salmon, steelhead and lamprey quickly and safely past numerous dams to the ocean. In 2001, a year of very low runoff, only between 4 percent and 30 percent of out-migrating salmon survived the journey downstream.

With declining snowpack due to the changing climate, low water conditions are becoming more common. Deep reservoir drawdowns could increase river flow fluctuations that dewater salmon nests and strand juvenile salmon. This is a critical concern for Hanford Reach fall chinook in the Columbia’s last free-flowing 50-mile section. Hanford Reach chinook comprise the last large, sustainable stock in the Basin today. They anchor major fisheries in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon. And they provide the backbone for in-river tribal treaty and non-tribal sport and commercial fisheries.

Additional impacts from deeper reservoir drawdowns could include the loss of cool-water releases that benefit returning adult salmon, increased mortality of resident fish sucked into dam turbines, harm to cultural resources, increased shoreline erosion and wind-blown contaminated sediments. Deeper drawdowns could also undermine municipal and irrigation water supply, navigation, and hydropower reliability. All must be considered in treaty negotiations complicated by accelerating climate change.

River operations to reduce the harmful impacts of deeper drawdowns at Lake Roosevelt must be evaluated by U.S. and Canadian negotiators. The Army Corps has yet to complete a flood-risk management assessment that was called for in anticipation of the expiration of current treaty flood operations. Without this study, the U.S. has limited options for avoiding impacts to already imperiled salmon runs while protecting communities and adapting to climate change. More immediately, continued coordinated and flexible operations, such as Canadian winter reservoir drawdowns for power, could reduce the need for deeper U.S. reservoir drafts and must be carefully assessed.

With the expiration of current flood control provisions looming, negotiators must redouble their efforts to modernize the treaty, so that it maintains its original purposes — flood management and power production — while also prioritizing the health of the river and its fish and wildlife populations on both sides of the border.

Time is short and there is much at stake.

Robert Heinith is a retired fisheries biologist who served as a tribal technical representative for the regional Columbia River Treaty Collaborative Work Group. Joseph Bogaard is the executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

Everett Herald Comment: 'Water, energy, salmon depend on U.S., Canadian talks' article link

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