Revisiting the Columbia River Treaty

In the upcoming Council Quarterly, we interview Stephen R. Oliver, vice president of generation asset management for the Bonneville Power Administration and the co-coordinator of the U.S. Entity for implementing the Columbia River Treaty. Work is underway to update this landmark agreement between the U.S. and Canada, and Oliver discusses the importance of the treaty and how it might change. Here's a condensed preview:

Q. What benefits do the United States and Canada enjoy under the treaty, and would those change if the treaty is terminated? If so, how?

A. Since 1964, the Columbia River Treaty has brought benefits to both the United States and Canada by providing a cooperative way to regulate the Columbia River. Under the treaty, the two nations jointly manage the river for power generation and flood control as it flows from British Columbia into the United States. The treaty is widely praised worldwide as a model of international cooperation in the management of a large trans-boundary river.

The impetus for the treaty came from the disastrous flood at Vanport (now part of Portland) in 1948 and the subsequent opportunity for low-cost hydropower to fuel the Northwest economy.

Although the treaty has no termination date, it does have two provisions that take effect on and after September 16, 2024 that will change flood control operations and payments between Canada and the United States and provide the option for either country to terminate most of the treaty provisions with a minimum of 10 years’ notice.

Q.  The treaty addresses only flood control and hydropower generation. Is the review considering how other river uses, such as irrigation, water supply, or ESA-required flows for salmon and steelhead migration, can best be met in the future; whether that future continues under the existing treaty or under a terminated, modified or new treaty? If so, how?

A. Yes, it is. The world is a different place than it was in 1964. Power and flood control are not the only relevant issues when determining how to best manage the resources of the Columbia River for the common good. The U.S. Entity’s overarching challenge in the review will be to adequately consider the ecosystem, environmental, irrigation, navigation, and other issues that were not addressed in the original treaty, and balance those interests with the continuing need for flood control and power benefits.

It is the U.S. Entity’s intention to submit a recommendation to the State Department in September of 2013; one year before either nation can transmit its intention to terminate the treaty, in order to provide federal authorities sufficient time to deliberate and review that recommendation.

Q.  While there are myriad issues to address and resolve in the review, what are several of the most important in your opinion?

A. Going forward, the policy and analytical challenges are substantial. Since the treaty’s signing, far reaching fish and wildlife statutory protections have been enacted that bear on BPA’s and the Corps of Engineers' responsibilities for managing the Columbia River. Fourteen fish and wildlife species have been listed and the current biological opinion explicitly notes the need to address river flows resulting from treaty operations. Also critical are the changes to flood control that automatically occur in 2024, and the need to assure that the amount of the Canadian entitlement aligns with the real benefits. These changes, or any other modifications to the treaty storage operations, will involve challenges and the need for cooperation between the Northwest states, tribes, and federal agencies, as well as between power, irrigation, fish and wildlife, recreation, and other concerns. The U.S. Entity intends for this review to be transparent, open, collaborative, and inclusive among the sovereigns, tribal, state, and stakeholder interests.