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The Columbia River Treaty

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The Columbia River Treaty is an agreement between the United States and Canada that was implemented to provide for the cooperative operation and development of the water resources of the Columbia River Basin. The agreement signed in 1961 and implemented in 1964 was for flood control and power generation benefits.

The Columbia River historically experienced large variations in seasonal and annual flows that caused flood control and hydro-generation operating problems. The treaty allowed the United States to build and operate Libby Dam, on the Kootenai River in Montana, to provide flood control downstream from the dam and at the same time increase the electric power generation capability for the Pacific Northwest electric users. Libby Dam construction was completed in 1972.

The treaty also required Canada to build and operate three large dams in British Columbia. Construction of Duncan Dam on the Duncan River that flows into the Columbia was completed in 1967 and was the first dam constructed under the treaty.

Keenleyside Dam (also known as Arrow Dam), completed in 1968, was the second dam constructed just upstream of Castlegar, British Columbia on the Columbia.

Mica Dam was the third Canadian dam completed in 1973 and also built on the Columbia north of Revelstoke, British Columbia.

The power provisions under the treaty required that Canada operate their storage facilities for optimum power generation downstream from the facilities for Canada and the United States. In return, the U.S. would deliver electric power to Canada equal to one-half the estimated U.S. power benefits (defined as the “Canadian Entitlement”) from the operation of the Canadian Storage facilities. The value of this power is currently estimated at $250 million to $350 million annually.

In addition to the federal hydropower utilized to meet the Canadian Entitlement, the owners of the Mid-Columbia non-federal dams were also required to deliver 27.5 percent of the required U.S. power delivery to Canada.

To assist in providing flood control, the treaty requires Canada to operate 8.95 million acre feet of storage under flood control operating plans that is designed to eliminate, or if not possible then reduce as much as possible flood damages in both the U.S. and Canada. Although never used, there is also a provision in the treaty that Canada must “operate all additional storage on an on-call basis as requested and paid for.”

The U.S. paid Canada $64.4 million as the dams were completed to compensate Canada for one-half of the expected future U.S. flood damages that exercise of the treaty provisions would prevent from 1968 through 2024. This purchase of flood control benefits expires in 2024.

The Division Engineer of the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration are the U.S. Entity that implements the treaty on behalf of the U.S. British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority acts as the Canadian Authority.

The Columbia Treaty does not have a specified termination date; however, the U.S. or Canada can request to terminate most of the provisions of the Treaty as early as September 2004, with a minimum of 10 years notice. 

Currently, the U.S. Entity is undergoing a public process to determine what actions, if any, the U.S. should pursue in terms of continuing, changing or terminating the treaty. The Canadian Entity is also engaging in a similar process in determining what actions Canada should pursue in potential treaty negotiations.

The existing treaty provided provisions enhancing flood control and electric power benefits; however, operation of the facilities on the Columbia impacts other interests as well. Consequently, many of the region’s stakeholders and sovereigns (including tribal interests) believe that modernization of the treaty is in the best interest of the United States.

A “Draft Regional Recommendation” was published September 20 that identifies potential modifications to the Treaty. Included in this draft recommendation are eight general principles outlined below:

1. Treaty provisions should enable the greatest possible shared benefits in the United States and Canada from the coordinated operation of Treaty reservoirs for ecosystem, hydropower, and flood risk management, as well as water supply, recreation, navigation and other pertinent benefits and uses, as compared to no longer coordinating Treaty storage operations.

2. The health of the Columbia River ecosystem should be a shared benefit of the United States and Canada.

3. The minimum duration of the Treaty post-2024 should be long enough to allow each country to rely on the Treaty’s planned operations and benefits for purposes of managing their long-range budgets, resource plans and investments, but adaptable enough to allow integration of best available science and social knowledge, with rebalancing of the purposes and benefits if necessary.

4. United States Federal reservoirs/projects will continue to meet authorized uses consistent with applicable legislation and other United States laws, such as Treaty and Trust Responsibilities to the Columbia Basin Tribes, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Non-federal United States projects will continue to meet their responsibilities pursuant to their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license plans.

5. The United States and Canada should integrate both Treaty and Canadian non-Treaty storage into the Treaty to increase the flexibility to, and benefits of, meeting ecosystem-based function, power, flood risk management and other authorized water management purposes in both countries.

6. The region anticipates impacts from climate change to all of the elements described in this document (i.e. the Draft Regional Recommendation). The strategy for adapting the Treaty to future changes in climate should be resilient, adaptable, flexible, and timely as conditions warrant.

7. It is recognized that modifications to the Treaty could result in new benefits, and/or costs, to both Canada and the United States. United States’ interests should ensure that costs associated with any Treaty operation are aligned with the appropriate party. As an example, any payments for Columbia River flood risk management should be consistent with the national flood risk funding policy of federal funding with applicable local beneficiaries sharing those costs as appropriate. 

8. Inclusion of ecosystem-based functions in the Treaty, and the implementation of these functions, should not prevent the region from achieving its objective of reducing U.S. power costs. In order to accomplish this, funding for additional ecosystem-based function operations should come from a rebalancing of the power benefits between the two countries or from other sources.

One can see from these eight principles that any changes to the Treaty are going to result in significant changes to the Columbia River operations in order to satisfy the many interests in the benefits of the Columbia River. As an example power costs could increase and recreational benefits could be enhanced or diminished depending upon other interests. Close to home, even Pend Oreille lake levels could be modified in order to meet other conflicting interests in Columbia River Basin operations.

Idaho State and our citizens have a stake in the final Treaty agreements and concerned interests need to be involved in the public process related to Treaty changes. Additional information on the Treaty and associated public involvement activities can be found on the treaty website at: http://1.usa.gov/NcwTDt

Thanks for reading and as always feel free to contact me by phone at 265-0123, by e-mail at geskridge(at)coldreams.com or by mail at P.O. Box 112, Dover, Idaho 83825. George

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Rep. George Eskridge Rep. George Eskridge the Republican Representative for District 1 in Idaho’s House, George Eskridge can be reached at 208-265-0123 or write PO Box 112, Dover, ID 83825

Tagged as:

water rights, A Seat in the House, The Columbia River Treaty, dams, border issues

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