By Christine Pratt, The Wenatchee World
June 4, 2015
WASHINGTON, D.C.- The U.S. State Department will include the region's key recommendations in future negotiations with Canada over how to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.
In a May 20 letter to Sen. Patty Murray, the State Department broke its relative silence on its plans for the landmark, 50-year-old treaty, which governs how the U.S. and Canada work together to manage Columbia River flows for flood control and hydropower generation.
"The Administration recognizes the significant economic and cultural role the Columbia River plays in the lives of your constituents in the Pacific Northwest. We assure you that the future of the Treaty is a priority, and internal deliberations are gaining momentum," Julia Frifield, assistant secretary of legislative affairs, wrote to Murray.
The letter says the feds will include the region's recommendations for flood-risk mitigation, ecosystem-based function and hydropower generation in its draft negotiation position and described discussions with Canada as "soon to begin."
Local and regional stakeholders in the treaty-modernization effort greeted the letter with optimism.
"We're very encouraged," Steve Wright, general manager of the Chelan County PUD, said Wednesday. "This is the first real sign of movement. They say they're 'gaining momentum.' We're very encouraged by that."
D.R. Michel, a regional spokesman for Columbia Basin Indian tribes, agreed. "It's huge for the region to have 'ecosystem function' included in those river operations," he said. "We're hoping the letter is a kick-off to get this process moving. It's been a long time coming."
The State Department letter responds to two letters Northwest lawmakers have sent to President Obama to urge him to embrace the regional recommendation and launch talks with Canada - action the region was hoping would begin last year.
North Central Washington's PUDs and ratepayers have a big stake in treaty modernization.
Under the treaty, U.S. Columbia River power generators, including the PUDs, must send power north when Canada asks for it to compensate the Canadians for the large, treaty-mandated reservoirs they built. This mandate to transfer power is called the "Canadian Entitlement."
The Canadian reservoirs capture snowmelt for release gradually throughout the year to control flooding and boost downriver hydropower generation. Bonneville, the PUDs and other power users say the value of this power transfer, about $400 million annually, is about 10 times greater than it should be.
The Chelan, Douglas and Grant PUDs altogether contribute about 27 percent of the Entitlement, or about $108 million in power deliveries annually. An unbalanced Entitlement, they say, increases power costs for ratepayers all over the Northwest.
Most provisions of the treaty will lapse in 2024, but may be continued or altered if either the U.S. or Canada expresses such interest with 10 years notice. Flood control would continue, but under a different system.
The Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led a multi-year study- and consensus-building effort that resulted in a "regional recommendation" they presented to the State Department in December 2013. In it, they urged the feds to launch talks with Canada by mid-April 2014.
Steve Wright led that effort for Bonneville, then retired from the agency and later accepted his current job with the Chelan County PUD.