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House Natural Resources Committee Holds Pasco
Field Hearing on Revising Columbia River Treaty

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 12, 2013

Speakers representing interests north and south of the Canadian border who expressed views at a congressional hearing held in Pasco, Wash., early this week agreed on at least one thing -- that talks should begin soon on how the long-running Columbia River Treaty might be revised to balance benefits between Americans and Canadians.

Washington U.S. Rep. "Doc" Hastings called the field hearing of House Natural Resources Committee, of which he is chair, to "start the dialogue" about how the treaty might be revised.

"As the U.S. works through the future of the Columbia River Treaty with Canada, it's important that the treaty remains focused on the core functions of coordinated power generation and flood control," Hastings said. "I have expressed concerns with the draft recommendations of the U.S. Entity, and look forward to this opportunity to hear directly from impacted local and regional stakeholders."

Wide divides remain, however, primarily, on the price the United States should pay for accommodations provided by river operators in British Columbia, where the 1,200-mile river begins and where high-mountain snowpacks, and storage reservoirs, provide the liquid resource and an early delivery system.

Those accommodations include flood control and timed releases of water from north of the border that are aimed to boost hydro power production in the region and help improve flows for fish stocks such as salmon and steelhead that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Still subject to debate on both sides of the border is whether or not a revised or "modernized" treaty should take into account ecosystem function considerations, such as salmon restoration. The original treaty has been focused on hydro power generation and flood control considerations.

The existing Columbia River Treaty was forged in 1961, with implementation beginning in 1964. The international agreement guided coordinated operation of the many dams and reservoirs.

The treaty calls for two "entities" to implement the agreement, one for the United States and one for Canada. The U.S. Entity, appointed by the president, consists of the BPA administrator and the Northwestern Division engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Canadian Entity, appointed by the Canadian cabinet, is the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro). Much of the authority to negotiate new treaty conditions rests with the British Columbia provincial government.

Both entities issued draft recommendations earlier this fall about what issues should be discussed in any further discussions, if indeed discussions take place. Final recommendations about how to proceed are due before year's end. The countries must give 10-year notice next year about whether or not they want to continue the treaty.

"The Columbia River plays a vital role in our region's economy -- providing low-cost hydropower, irrigation, and navigation," Hastings said.

Monday's discussions were led by Hastings and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman. Both said changes need to be made to the agreement going forward.

"It is time to strike a better bargain," Wyden said.

Wyden called for keeping electricity costs lower for ratepayers in the region, noting that under the treaty, the United States is required to pay Canada for half of the estimated power generated from dams in the Columbia River Basin in what is known as the "Canadian entitlement."

That costs U.S. consumers about $250 million to $300 million every year in power costs, Wyden said.

"Striking a new power benefit sharing deal with Canada based on the actual benefits to both nations is the way to proceed," Wyden said. "Experts in the region calculate that Northwest ratepayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars if the payments to Canada were recalculated based on the power our region actually receives."

Wyden emphasized the importance of managing the Columbia River with input from regional stakeholders, including local tribes, and in a way that protects endangered salmon, ensures flood protection to downstream residents and takes climate change into account.

BPA's acting CEO Elliot Mainzer said that, during the three years of discussions leading up to final recommendations that will be forwarded to the U.S. State Department at week's end, "the message we have most heard … is that it is in the best interest of the region to modernize operations under the Treaty to bring about better and more balanced benefits.

"As we are developing a regional recommendation, the U.S. Entity has listened closely to the many diverse voices in the region about how to reflect their respective interests in the recommendation.

"While many in the region appreciate the benefits that have flowed from the Treaty, there is widespread concern in the U.S. that the method included in the Treaty for calculating Canada's share of the Treaty's power benefits is not equitable. There is interest in providing flood risk reduction for public safety through agreement with Canada on how we can implement continued, mutually agreeable, coordinated flood risk management operations.

"There is also a strong desire by many to more formally incorporate ecosystem-based functions into the implementation of the Treaty and to recognize evolving interests in other water management issues in the Columbia River Basin."

Umatilla tribal leader N. Kathryn Brigham testified before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Speaking on behalf of 15 tribes in the Columbia bassin, Brigham's testimony highlighted the need to modernize the treaty and called for the inclusion of ecosystem-based function as part of any renegotiation. It also called for a stronger role for the tribal sovereigns in the formation of a new treaty.

"Our biggest concern is that we are asking to be partners," Brigham told Hastings. The expansion of the treaty to include ecosystem function is the primary concern next on the list.

"There are people on both sides of the border that would like ecosystem considered in a modernized treaty," Brigham said of U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations.

"The ecosystem function of the Columbia Basin watershed is measured as the Basin's ability to provide, protect and nurture cultural resources, traditions, values and landscapes throughout its length and breadth. The Columbia Basin Tribes hold that clean and abundant water that is sufficient to sustain healthy populations of fish, wildlife, and plants is vital to holistic concept of ecosystem-based function and life itself," according to Brigham.

Kathy Eichenberger of the British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines told Hastings that the "true value" of costs vs. benefits must be determined during anticipated negotiations.

"The Treaty has significantly enhanced hydropower production in the U.S. and continues to provide predictable and reliable flows that translate into firm energy so that utilities can meet their customer loads during all periods of the year, including cold winter and dry hot summers," Eichenberger said. "Treaty operations are designed to maximize incremental power production in the U.S. British Columbia believes that it should not be negatively impacted by water allocation choices made in the United States for other interests that reduce power benefits in your country."

As for ecosystem considerations, considerable benefits have already been accrued under the existing treaty, she said.

"Flexibility within the Treaty has allowed changes in operations to benefit ecosystem values, including U.S. salmon recovery, by augmenting flows in the spring to better imitate the natural hydrograph, and by augmenting flows during late summer and during dry years which are particularly critical to fish survival," according to Eichenberger.

"As climate change predictions foresee hotter and drier conditions for the lower Columbia Basin, this coordination will become only more valuable for the U.S. British Columbia believes that we don't need to change the treaty to work towards improving ecosystems even further."

More on the British Columbia view of U.S. vs. Canada benefits can be found at

The Public Power Council's executive director, Scott Corwin, told Hastings and Wyden that "The primary objective of engaging in any treaty negotiations with Canada must be focused on correcting the current inequity of the U.S. obligation under the Canadian Entitlement, and providing a significant net benefit to the region's consumers."

The PPC represents consumer-owned electric utilities of the Pacific Northwest that purchase power and transmission marketed by the BPA. PPC is also a member of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, consisting of over 80 electric utilities, industry associations and other entities that depend on power produced by the Columbia River hydropower generating plants.

"Northwest electric customers are likely to provide well over $2 billion in benefits to Canada over the next 10 years alone, despite the U.S. Entity's own estimate that the actual annual value of this benefit to the U.S. is only in the range of $25 to $30 million (i.e., only one-tenth of the current Canadian Entitlement obligation)," Corwin said of the current entitlement arrangement.

Corwin also said that utilities hedge at the thought of a new treaty that calls for them to account for ecosystem obligations, such as salmon recovery, that are already absorbing "tens of billions of dollars" in ratepayer funds. Those efforts and expenditures need to be recognized, Corwin said.

In response to Rep. Hastings' Congressional hearing in Pasco, WA on the Columbia River Treaty, Northwest conservationists, fishing groups, and businesses encouraged the State Department to move forward with negotiations with Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. Treaty decisions will have far-reaching impacts on the region's environment, economy, and culture.

"We support modernizing the Columbia River Treaty to promote river health, including improved passage for salmon at the dams," said Greg Haller, Pacific Rivers Council's Conservation director and who testified at the hearing. "The United States and Canada converted one of the greatest salmon rivers on earth to a massive hydropower generator with severe consequences for the river, salmon, and people who depend on the salmon. In this time of climate change, our generation has the opportunity to bring balance to Columbia River governance: river health and salmon, flood control, and clean, low-carbon power generation."

Wyden stressed the need for a true accounting.

"No other region (of the United States) has been called on for this," the senator said of what are salmon recovery efforts paid for, in the most part, by electric ratepayers, not taxpayers at large.

House Natural Resources Committee Holds Pasco Field Hearing on Revising Columbia River Treaty
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 12, 2013

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