Roll On Columbia
Wednesday, July 7, 2021
ROLL ON COLUMBIA: While political rancor and paralysis continue to rule the District of Columbia, regional lawmakers appear to be coming together around the health and future of the River Columbia—the vast drainage basin for the Pacific Northwest.
A bipartisan group of 21 Northwest lawmakers called on President Joe Biden last week to prioritize a long-running effort to renegotiate a 60-year-old treaty that governs how the United States and Canada share the waters of the Columbia River Basin. The letter was jointly penned by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (the firebreathing Republican from the state’s easternmost congressional district) and Peter DeFazio (the mild Democrat from Oregon’s southernmost congressional district), and signed by Washington Senator Patty Murray. In refreshing unity, the letter was supported by the unanimous entirety of the PNW’s congressional delegation—Republicans and Democrats alike.
“The 1964 treaty provided the framework for the United States and Canada to provide certainty and benefits to both nations,” lawmakers declared in their letter. “Much has changed over the past 57 years.”
At issue is the Columbia River Treaty, a transboundary agreement that has governed flood risk management and hydropower production for more than five decades. Three huge storage reservoirs in Canada and Montana are managed jointly by the treaty that in part dictates how Mica, Arrow, and Duncan dams in British Columbia handle more than 15 million acre-feet of water. The letter urges the Biden administration to update the Columbia River Treaty amid rising concerns over salmon runs, flood risk and electricity the hydroelectric grid sends to Canada under the accord.
With certain provisions set to expire in 2024, regional lawmakers said the lack of certainty provided by an outdated treaty raises concerns about mitigating flood control risks and future use of hydropower, which provides more than 70 percent of Washington’s energy portfolio.
Power benefits to Canada, known as the Canadian Entitlement, are provided through the treaty. Yet recent government studies suggest the United States is vastly overpaying Canada for the benefits it receives—now by more than $150 million per year. This cost is passed on to American taxpayers, and comes at significant economic harm to the region, lawmakers said.
“Modernizing this treaty is critically important to protecting our region from flood control risks and ensuring we can continue to lead with clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable hydropower,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.
“The renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty has been years in the making and after consistent bipartisan, regional communication that has weighed power, flood control, and ecosystem concerns, it’s time to finalize these negotiations,” Murray agreed. “I hope and expect the Biden administration will work with tribes and stakeholders to quickly reach a comprehensive renegotiation of the treaty while keeping Congress abreast of its progress.”
The treaty, which took more than 20 years to negotiate, came together after a 1948 flood washed away what once was Oregon’s second-biggest city, Vanport. It provided for the construction of one dam in Montana and three in British Columbia, completed between 1968 and 1973, that together more than doubled the amount of reservoir storage in the basin, providing benefits for both flood prevention and generating power.
The Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers began a review of the agreement in 2011 and recommended a series of changes to the State Department in 2013.
Their recommendations included letting more water flow through the dams in spring and summer to improve fish passage, decreasing the treaty’s impact on tribal resources and updating flood management and energy sharing plans.
In a figurative (and perhaps even literal) sense, the dams on the Columbia River may have begun to be breached for bipartisan agreement even earlier this year when Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson stepped out with a plan to remove four dams on the Lower Snake River to restore the Columbia River system to health, replacing the dams with new green energy infrastructure. Simpson cited the economic benefits to the health of salmon and the fishing industry in a proposal long opposed by his fellow Republicans. The definition of a geographically unifying feature, the Snake River runs through Idaho and along the Idaho-Oregon border before joining the Columbia.
Regional Republicans broke into a quarrel about the proposal to remove the four small dams (which provide no flood control and limited hydroelectric capacity), a plan supported by the tribes and eco-warriors—which perhaps explains the polar political schism. Simpson declared he just wanted to tell “everyone who would listen” about his comprehensive solution to save salmon.
In this, he found a welcome friend in Oregon—Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, whose staff exchanged scores of pages of documents in support of the Simpson proposal.
Simpson’s plan is not a perfect plan, and is in fact opposed by more than a dozen regional environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Spokane Riverkeeper Alliance. In recognition of this, and perhaps to forestall an agreement sealed too readily, Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee in May released a circumspect statement on the proposal.
“While we appreciate Rep. Simpson’s efforts and the conversations we have had so far with tribes and stakeholders, it is clear more work within the Pacific Northwest is necessary to craft a lasting, comprehensive solution,” the Democrats noted. “We are calling for a formal, regional process that is based on science, consensus, and ensuring all voices in the region are heard. Importantly, it is critical that this process takes all options into consideration, including the potential breaching of the Lower Four Snake River Dams.”
The Democrats outlined key elements that must be included in the plan, none of which appear to be unsupportable by Simpson.
It is fascinating to imagine other broad agreements may be made in this way, methodically laying aside gridlock and partisanship and endless culture war to forge agreements of genuine benefit to the region.