Interest grows in future dam operations as Columbia River Treaty deadline approaches

Electric utilities, academics, tribes, and government agencies in the United States and Canada are beginning to think about the future of the Columbia River Treaty, the 1964 agreement between the two countries that directs the operation of dams for hydropower generation and flood control.

Under the Treaty, the assured flood control operation the region has lived with for 50 years ends in 2024, to be replaced by something far less certain. The power system coordination provisions of the Treaty could end in 2024, if either country gives 10 years’ advance notice, and so the first opportunity for either country to signal its intention is just four years away.

Tuesday in Portland, representatives of the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers briefed the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on the results of studies that begin to look at future scenarios with and without the treaty.

"This could be a defining issue for the region for the next 50 years because of the many implications of river and dam operations for fish, wildlife, energy, and the environment," Council Chair Bruce Measure of Montana said.

The Columbia River Treaty coordinates the operations of water-storage dams in British Columbia to maximize hydropower generation downstream in the United States and also provide flood control for the Portland/Vancouver area and other lower-river communities. Importantly, the treaty does not address modern-day dam operations not envisioned in 1964, such as boosting flows in the spring and summer to aid salmon and steelhead migration to and from the ocean.

The studies are part of a multi-year effort by Bonneville, the Corps, and BC Hydro, British Columbia’s provincial electric utility, to understand the implications of various future options for the Treaty — termination, continuation, and modification. This effort is called the 2014/2024 Columbia River Treaty Review. Under the treaty, the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwestern Division engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comprise the United States Entity for treaty implementation. BC Hydro is the Canadian Entity under the Treaty. Before 2014, the entities will advise the governments of Canada and the United States regarding the future of the treaty.

The Council, which conducts regional power planning and produces a program to address the impacts of Columbia River Basin dams on fish and wildlife, is interested in the future of the treaty because of the potential changes in Columbia River flows and impacts on hydropower generation at dams on the river. In the future, reservoirs behind dams in both the U.S. and Canada could be operated much differently for purposes of flood control, putting at risk either flood control, beneficial operating conditions for fish and wildlife, or both.

Flows and reservoir levels could change significantly, which could affect salmon, steelhead, and resident fish spawning, rearing and migration. Because of changes in reservoir operations, hydropower generation patterns could change dramatically from month to month, less in some places and times and more in others, with significant effects on the regional power system that will need to be accommodated.

According to the studies, without the treaty the annual average reduction in hydropower would be about 90 to 94 average megawatts. Currently that is enough power for about 57,000 Northwest homes — not a huge amount. But the monthly and seasonal changes are potentially much larger — 1,460 average megawatts in dry years in the summer, for example, an amount of power greater than the power consumption of Seattle today.

In Phase One of the 2014/2024 Treaty Review, Bonneville, the Corps, and BC Hydro conducted studies to provide fundamental information about post-2024 conditions both with and without the Treaty, and only from the limited perspective of power and flood control. The entities released the Phase One report for public review in July. Last month Bonneville and the Corps completed a supplemental study that overlays river and dam operations required by Endangered Species Act biological opinions and other regulations on the results of the Phase One studies. The supplemental studies are important because they present a more realistic picture of current and future river operations under the various scenarios. The studies are posted on the 2014/2024 Treaty Review website.

While the Treaty has no specified end date, either Canada or the United States can terminate most provisions of the Treaty on or after Sept. 16, 2024, with a minimum advance notice of 10 years. Thus, 2024 is the first year a notice of termination would take effect assuming written notice of termination is given by the Canadian or U.S. governments on or before Sept. 16, 2014. Unless the two nations terminate or mutually modify the Treaty, it continues indefinitely with one exception — the Treaty’s provisions for systematic flood control end in 2024 whether the Treaty is terminated or not, to be replaced by provisions allowing for "called upon" flood control subject to a number of conditions.

Tuesday the Council also heard a report from an Oregon State University professor who coordinated a symposium on the future of the treaty earlier this week in Corvallis. Aaron Wolf, who chairs the geosciences department and is an expert on international water law, said the symposium included government officials, academics, tribes, and others from both countries who have an interest in the future of the river and the treaty.

"Everything was on the table, everything was open for discussion," Wolf said. "It’s all one basin, north and south of the border; people candidly offered ideas and concepts — getting salmon back to the Columbia River in BC, for example — that would not necessarily be discussed in a more formal process."