A lot of water has passed under the bridges — and through the dams — since officials representing the United States and Canada signed the Columbia River treaty in 1964. The focus then was on flood control and power generation; Canada stores water behind three major dams on the river, whose headwaters lie in British Columbia, and in return receives electricity generated by U.S. dams along with $64 million for flood control.
The treaty has no expiration date, but either country may cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years’ notice, which means such notice could come next year. Federal regulators, in a draft document, are suggesting that a notice is well in order.
As times change over a half-century, so do society’s priorities. Environmental issues, especially the impact of dams on fish, received little consideration back when the treaty was drafted. Federal regulators say a renegotiated treaty should take into account threatened and endangered species; expect to hear the term “ecosystem function” in reference to proposed changes.
This is the sort of nomenclature that raises a red flag among irrigators, farmers and the hydropower industry, many of whom no doubt share the concerns of 4th District Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco. The congressman said in a statement that ecosystem issues “only serve to distract from the essential task of working with Canada on the core issues under the treaty — the need to rebalance power benefits and to address long-term flood control needs.”
And certainly, concerns about salmon runs, fish habitat and other environmental issues can’t be wielded as a club to foist extreme measures onto the region, such as dam breaching or removal. But there is plenty of room to accommodate present-day environmental concerns with those of flood control and power generation.
For example, a proposal to help young migrating salmon by spilling water over the dams in the spring could ease the problem of the past two years, when hydropower generators already were operating at capacity. As a result of the power glut, wind farms were forced to curtail operations, as their electricity competed for space on the grid.
Other issues could be in the mix, such as whether to boost water supplies in the summer, and whether the U.S. should seek a more balanced share of the equity of the power that is sent to Canada.
Leading the review of the treaty are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration. They are consulting with other federal agencies, four Northwest states including Washington, and more than a dozen Indian tribes. The regulators will send their final recommendation in December to the State Department, which will make the final decision on whether to renegotiate.
Any document is worth a review after 50 years. The key is to find the proper balance between environmental concerns and the economic benefits that millions of Northwest residents enjoy.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.