Making Improvements to the Columbia River Treaty
The Columbia River has always been essential to our economy and our way of life. It generates clean renewable power to light our homes and businesses, provides irrigation for our crops, creates fishing and recreation opportunities, and serves as a way to move goods from the interior of the Northwest to markets overseas.
However, the river also sometimes reminds us of its destructive power. Sixty-five years ago, devastating floods along the Columbia wiped out the City of Vanport downriver and displaced thousands of people in the Tri-Cities. That type of catastrophic flood is much less likely today, in large part due to the Columbia River Treaty agreement with Canada and subsequent investments made in new dams by both countries.
Under the 1964 Columbia River Treaty, the United States compensates Canada for coordinated power generation and flood control between our two nations. Starting next year, either country can end the Treaty with ten year’s notice. Both countries are currently reassessing the Treaty and considering changes. As a part of this process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration developed recommendations to the U.S. State Department as a starting point in negotiations with Canada on the future of the Treaty.
In my view, it is essential to focus on the two core functions of the Treaty, power generation and flood control. It is estimated that the actual United States power benefit from coordination with Canada may be a tenth of what we compensate them for today under the current treaty terms. Adjusting the payment for power generation, or entitlement, to Canada could save Northwest ratepayers millions of dollars annually and should be the top priority for the State Department. It is also imperative that we reach an agreement on how flood control operations would work going forward.
Some have advocated strongly for adding “ecosystem” issues into the treaty as a third primary purpose. The United States already operates one of the most comprehensive endangered species programs for Columbia River salmon, which has contributed to near record or record returns in recent years. Negotiations with the Canadians over the entitlement and flood control will be challenging enough as is, without injecting ambiguous and contentious items like ecosystem restoration – especially when these issues are already being appropriately addressed through collaborative practices within the Pacific Northwest.
Earlier this month, I hosted a House Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Pasco – the heart of the Columbia River Basin – on the future of the Columbia River Treaty. At the hearing, a robust discussion took place on the benefits of the Treaty and ways it can be improved. Numerous witnesses noted the importance of hydropower in providing clean, low-cost electricity to the Pacific Northwest, stressed the need to rebalance the Canadian entitlement, and discussed the need to keep the Treaty focused on the core functions of coordinated power generation and flood control.
Since the hearing, the negotiators from the United States announced their final recommendations to the U.S. State Department regarding modifications to the Treaty. I’m pleased to see significant improvements were made to their final recommendation by focusing on flood control operations and the reduction of the Canadian entitlement, and by reflecting greater input from irrigation and navigation interests.
As this process moves to the State Department in 2014, I remain committed to working with my colleagues in a bipartisan manner to ensure that addressing these issues with Canada is made a priority and that there is continued opportunities for input from Northwest residents.