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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty—What’s to Come?

Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty—What’s to Come?
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By Jamie Morin & Alisa Royem

The Columbia River is the fourth-largest river in the U.S. by volume according to Wikipedia©. At 1,243 miles in length, the river and its tributaries touch seven states and one Canadian province. (As impressive as this is, it still comes in second to the Colorado River at 1,450 miles touching seven states and two Mexican states.) The Columbia River Treaty is an international agreement between the United States and Canada entered in 1961 with one-third of the water in the Columbia River coming from the Canadian headwaters. Designed for the joint development, regulation, and management of the Columbia River, to coordinate flood control and optimize hydroelectric energy production on both sides of the border, the Columbia River Treaty has profound effects on Columbia River flows. September 16th, 2024, marks the 60th Anniversary of the Columbia River Treaty (Treaty), and the beginning of what could be either the end of cooperation or an entirely new paradigm.

History of Negotiations

Coordination between the sovereigns began in 1944, when the Canadian and U.S. governments agreed to explore options for the joint development of dams in the Columbia River Basin. In 1948, a flood on the Columbia River caused extensive damage from Trail, British Columbia to Vanport, Oregon. Vanport, the second largest city in Oregon at the time, was completely destroyed and was not rebuilt after the devastation caused by the flood. This event galvanized the U.S. to offer incentives to ensure Canada would negotiate a treaty to mitigate the waters of the Columbia River in its upper reaches.

After being signed in 1961, the Treaty was not implemented until 1964, due to the funding of the construction of the Canadian dams and the marketing of the electrical power owed to Canada, which was surplus to Canadian power demand at that time. A Treaty Protocol and a Canada-British Columbia agreement were signed in January 1964 that limited and clarified many treaty provisions, defined rights and obligations between the British Columbia and Canadian governments, and allowed for the sale of the Canadian Entitlement (CE) to downstream U.S. power authorities.

Under the Treaty, Canada built three storage dams: Hugh Keenleyside, Duncan and Mica; the U.S. built the Libby Dam in Montana, which created a reservoir that flooded back into Canada. Unless otherwise agreed, the three Canadian dams are required to operate for flood protection and increased power generation at-site and downstream in both Canada and the U.S., although the allocation of water storage operations among the three projects is at Canadian discretion.

Negotiations at the time of the ratification of the Treaty recognized that the factors influencing the agreement would change over time. The Treaty is a 60-year agreement with key flood control protection guaranteed through 2024, with modifications thereafter. Critically important to the Treaty were power provisions to share the downstream power benefits, with the U.S. set to return hydropower capacity and energy to Canada for 60 years, after which there would be an opportunity to rebalance based on value to each country of coordination operations. Committing to a decades-long economic Treaty brought benefits and risks to both parties.

While the Treaty has no official expiry date, either party may terminate most* Treaty provisions after the 60th Anniversary date with ten-years written notice. This unilateral right for both countries was designed by the Treaty framers to allow a renegotiation based on the realization of actual benefits. If the Treaty terminates, responsibility for flood control will shift from Canada to the U.S., affecting major operational changes in a system which is already under pressure for declining fish populations and increasing power demands. *[The On Call Flood Control provisions designed to be used during periods of very high inflows will remain in effect as long as the dams exist, even if the Treaty is terminated.]

Current Negotiations

Negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty have been underway since May 2018. Since then, Canada and the U.S. have discussed a wide range of issues from the Treaty’s original purposes of enhancing flood risk management and hydroelectric power, to incorporating ecosystem function, increasing bilateral coordination of Libby Dam operations, and expanding operational flexibility to meet Canadian interests, the countries are exploring how the Treaty can be improved to reflect their needs today and into the future.

In 2020, each country put forward a framework for a modernized Treaty outlining their thinking on the main issues. The Canadian team, consisting of Canada, B.C. and the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations, continues collaborative projects to strengthen Canada’s negotiating positions. This includes a modeling initiative that will examine a variety of hydroelectric system operations to determine how Treaty dams could be managed differently to meet Canadian Basin interests, including ecosystems, Indigenous cultural values, flood-risk management, hydro power, and social and economic objectives.

In August 2022, the parties convened for a 13th round of negotiations. The negotiating teams reviewed proposals developed by both countries to reach an agreed-upon, modernized framework that incorporating flood risk management, hydropower coordination, ecosystem function, and increased Canadian operational flexibility.

After this last round of discussions between the U.S. and Canada, Katrine Conroy, the Canadian Minister Responsible for the Columbia River Treaty, issued a statement saying,

Discussions toward a modernized Columbia River Treaty progressed last week….The aim of each proposal is to find agreement on an updated treaty framework that includes not only flood-risk management and hydropower coordination but also cooperation on ecosystems and increased flexibility for Canadian operations….The fact that we are exchanging and reviewing proposals is, I believe, a sign that we are getting closer to finding alignment of our objectives…There is no deadline to complete negotiations, but I have every confidence that both countries are committed to finding common ground and reaching an agreement in a timely manner.

Conclusion and Implications

The U.S. has been less forthcoming in communication about the Treaty negotiation process. In September of 2022, 32 Pacific Northwest-based entities sent a joint letter to the State Department urging the U.S. to involve citizens and tribes in the U.S. negotiation process. According to the press release, the U.S. Negotiation Team has not held a public meeting in more than 2.5 years and has provided only minimum context to the public.