September 29, 2013
A hard thing to do got done in recent weeks as federal regulators proposed revisions to a treaty between Canada and the United States over use and management of the Columbia River. The treaty now in force was signed in 1964, when the Columbia was viewed mainly for hydroelectric production and feared for its capacity to flood and kill people, as it did in Portland back in 1948.
In the years since, however, the Columbia Basin -- a web of river drainages spread across an area the size of France -- has become the battleground of other issues, among them expensive salmon restoration efforts driven by a sweeping U.S. Endangered Species Act and federal obligations to Northwest tribes. Now a United States team led by the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is saying the treaty needs revision to more fairly broker present and future concerns, and pitched voices are emerging.
Paul Lumley, a citizen of the Yakama Nation and director of the Portland-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, recently told The Associated Press that a new treaty elevating ecological concerns alongside flood control and hydropower was so promising as to make the proposed new treaty a model of international water management. But central Washington Rep. Doc Hastings emerged from a recent meeting with federal authors and said emphasizing ecosystem management along the Columbia would "only serve to distract from the essential task of working with Canada on ... the need to rebalance power benefits and to address longterm flood control needs."
Canada is not yet in the conversation. The treaty in place has no expiration date, but changes to it can be made beginning in 2024 as long as either nation gives 10 years' notice. That means the U.S. team must make its recommendations to the State Department by December so that international negotiations can begin.
The Northwest region does, in fact, need a new treaty. Canada increasingly enjoys a lopsided benefit of power generated on the U.S. portion of the river system; federal documents show a so-called Canadian Entitlement as "outdated and no longer equitable, resulting in unnecessarily excessive cost to regional utility ratepayers."
But a reality that cannot be bleached away from any new treaty is that the Columbia River and its tributaries are a testing ground for the largest and most expensive wildlife stewardship in the history of the United States. Indeed, the Columbia's hydroelectric dams already are calibrated to support the effort to save migratory runs of fish that, incidentally, spend a fair amount of time in waters off Canada. Any new treaty must reflect that and anticipate costly challenges to the system brought about not only by wildlife management but, the federal authors note, potential rising temperatures from climate change.
The timing now is critical. Public hearings on the treaty's proposed revisions start in Spokane on Wednesday but end in Portland Oct. 16. Anyone can weigh in -- a good thing if the costs and strategies for safeguarding the Northwest's greatest asset and its people are to be shouldered fairly.
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