The remote potential but real concern for flooding low-lying areas around Portland if the Columbia River Treaty is not revised was cited frequently by speakers at a town hall-style meeting on the future of the 54-year old treaty this month in Portland.
Coincidentally, 2018 is the 70th anniversary of the Vanport Flood, which wiped out the community along the Columbia River north of Portland, leaving 15 people dead and 18,000 homeless. The 1948 flood was a key event that prompted the initial talks between the United States and Canada about a flood-control treaty for the Columbia River, which begins in British Columbia. While it took nearly 20 years to complete, the two primary purposes of the 1964 treaty are to optimize hydropower production and coordinate flood risk management. The treaty authorized construction of Keenleyside, Duncan, and Mica dams in British Columbia, and Libby Dam in the United States.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and representatives of the ports of Portland and Vancouver, and Portland-area diking districts, predicted that flood risk would increase for billions of dollars in commerce and property if the treaty expired under its existing language, which would change flood control rules. Unless the treaty is changed, at the end of its 60-year life in 2024, “assured” flood control now provided by Canada would change to a regime in which the United States would “call upon” Canada to hold water in reservoirs in British Columbia to control flooding downriver, and pay for it. Under the current treaty, the United States paid for 60 years of flood control when the treaty was ratified by both countries.
For several years, the United States and Canada have been preparing to renegotiate the treaty. Under terms of the treaty, either country could abandon it by giving 10 years’ notice to the other. Neither country has done that, and formal negotiations to renew or revise the treaty began earlier this year. Both countries developed recommendations (the U.S. recommendation was completed in December 2013), in collaboration with other parties including states, tribes and first nations, to guide the negotiations. The Portland town hall-style meeting, which attracted about 100 people, was the second conducted by the American negotiating team, which includes representatives of the Department of State, Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and NOAA Fisheries. The first was in Spokane in April; a third public meeting is planned in early 2019, possibly in January; the place has not been determined.
Jill Smail, the Treaty lead negotiator for the State Department, presided at the Sept. 6 Portland meeting and said the U.S. and Canadian teams “have been quite busy” since the April public meeting. She said the teams have had two rounds of negotiations – in May in Washington, D.C. and in August in Nelson, British Columbia. She said the teams are preparing for the third round, which will be in October in Portland.
In response to comments that tribes should be represented on the American team, Smail said the team met with tribal representatives earlier in the day and added, reading from a prepared statement, “we value the Tribes’ expertise and experience and are working with them to develop a mechanism for meaningful engagement throughout the negotiations.” Tribes were involved in developing the U.S. regional recommendation but are not represented on the negotiating team.
“This is a very exciting time to be working on the Treaty,” Smail continued. “People here in the Northwest have anticipated and planned for this for many years. At the Department of State, we are eager to move forward to help define how Americans and Canadians – including Tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada – will continue to mutually benefit from the Treaty.” Perhaps in a nod to the current tensions with Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement, she said the treaty “is an extremely important agreement with one of our best allies and partners in the hemisphere. We deeply value our unique and essential relationship with Canada.”
Of the 20 or so people who spoke during the meeting, flood control and better managing Columbia flows for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and the environment (generally, these are called “ecosystem benefits”) were most often cited as the reasons the treaty should be updated.
Scott Corwin, director of the Public Power Council, an association of Northwest public electric utilities, said the association “shares the sense of urgency in getting ahead of the default flood control changes in 2024 and in correcting the outdated power provisions of the Treaty.” He said that is because the region “relies on this incredible and clean hydropower system, and because these out-of-date power provisions create a loss to electricity ratepayers here every day.” Those provisions determine how much the United States pays Canada for its share of additional hydropower generated as the result of treaty dam operations. He said he recognized the difficulty of balancing hydropower generation with the environmental benefits of increased flows, but said “a balanced package is possible that meets the objectives of [the] regional recommendation, including significant net benefit to electricity ratepayers in the region.”
Portland Mayor Wheeler said the city recognizes the “complexity and sensitivity of balancing and modernizing the treaty,” and that flood-risk management, regional economic benefits provided by the treaty, and comprehensive ecosystem management of river flows are key issues important to the city that should be addressed in the negotiations. He also said, as did several other speakers, that tribes should be included on the negotiating team. No tribal representatives spoke at the hearing, although several were in the audience.
Bill Bradbury and Jim McKenna, jointly representing Oregon Governor Kate Brown, said 40 percent of the power Oregonians consume comes from the Columbia River and that a new or revised treaty “must provide Oregon access to affordable, reliable, sustainable electric power” while also assuring continued control of potential floods, which could wreak havoc with “national assets” including the Portland airport and Columbia River ports, and also vast areas of low-lying neighborhoods. The treaty also must continue to provide a mechanism for irrigation water withdrawals without affecting ecosystem benefits, McKenna said.
“The Columbia River Treaty modernization must not result in increased flood risk for the lower Columbia,” Bradbury said. If the treaty were left to run its course, “how would called-upon payments to Canada be calculated, and who would pay for it?’ he asked.
One issue important to American tribes and Canadian first nations, reintroduction of salmon to the Columbia River Basin above Grand Coulee Dam, which has blocked their passage since the late 1930s, was raised by several people, prompting responses from Lorri Gray, Northwest regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, and Smail.
“The topic has been put on the table,” Gray said. “It’s a technically difficult question, trying to figure out what that looks like, but we are listening. We understand the interest, and we also understand the technical difficulties.”
Smail said fish reintroduction “will be discussed with Canada at some point in the negotiations,” adding, “we have agreed to that.”