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Environment | Water

U.S. Issues New Plan For Columbia River Treaty

BOISE, Idaho — Climate change and fish protection should be top considerations when the United States and Canada renegotiate a treaty over how the neighboring countries should manage the Columbia River.

That’s the recommendation of U.S. regulators in a new draft issued Friday. The treaty is a half-century-old agreement controlling the Columbia River’s flow between Canada and the United States.

The draft proposed for the Columbia River Treaty went public, giving citizens and interest groups a chance to comment before it goes to the U.S. State Department in December to present to the Canadian government.

It includes key environmental provisions to address concerns that weren’t anticipated when the original treaty was adopted in 1964. Since then, 13 species of salmon and steelhead have been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in the U.S. portion of the Columbia, which is the fourth biggest river in North America.

With climate change worrying governmental leaders, U.S. regulators want to make sure enough water makes it across the U.S.-Canada border to meet the needs of fish, hydroelectric power customers, barge traffic, recreation and agriculture.

The latest recommendation calls for flexibility to respond to climate change, which could affect water supply needs by diminishing snowpack that melts and flows into the Columbia.

Any changes to the current treaty must be ratified by both governments.

The treaty spells out how dams on the upper Columbia River should be operated for flood control, irrigation and energy production. The agreement technically has no end date. But there is a provision that allows either country to end the agreement anytime provided it gives ten-years notice.

Paul Lumley, the executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, said he’s pleased that the draft calls for ecosystem health to be treated as a “co-equal” with hydropower generation and flood control — an update that he says will help protect fish runs.

“Leaving the Columbia River Treaty unchanged forces us all to lose, and lose significantly,” said Lumley, whose commission represents tribes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

There are a number of items that haven’t been agreed upon, including what to do with excess water in years with plenty of snow and rain. The tribes are also asking for continued input after the treaty is finalized and sent to the U.S. Department of State to present to the Canadian government.

One issue not addressed in the latest draft has been a sore spot for Washington and Oregon utilities. They want the treaty to reduce the amount of money they must give up to compensate Canada for releasing enough Columbia water to allow hydrodams in the U.S. to meet generation demands.

“The United States, i.e. the Pacific Northwest, is on the short end of the stick to the tune of between $250 million and $350 million annual,” said Dwight Langer, general manager of Oregon’s Northern Wasco County Public Utility District in a letter last month to federal regulators.

Utilities also are objecting to requirements in the draft that they spend more money to help with fish migration through added fish ladders and other projects.

In a statement, a coalition of Northwest utilities said their customers already are paying for such projects and shouldn’t be forced by an international treaty to spend even more.

For instance, Chelan PUD in Washington agreed to share the cost of a multi-million dollar sockeye hatchery based in Okanagan Basin in Canada. The hatchery will open in October 2014. Chelan PUD is also opposed to paying Canada between $27 million and $39 million a year as part of an ongoing entitlement covered in the current treaty. It’s part of the larger entitlement amount shared between utilities in the Pacific Northwest.

The draft Columbia River Treaty revisions are open for public review and comment through Oct. 25. Expect a slew of public meeting on the treaty over the next few months across the Pacific Northwest.