the film
Commentaries and editorials

Analysis: Columbia River Treaty Future
Stirs Conflicts -- And Possibilities

by Mark Ohrenschall
NW Fishletter, August 22, 2013

Northwest consensus on a recommended future for the Columbia River Treaty appears distant, although possibly reachable. The U.S. Entity's working draft recommendations for this landmark U.S.-Canada treaty have already generated plenty of discord, even ahead of the Aug. 16 comment deadline.

One reason, I think, is the nature of the working draft. Its seven pages offer a few specifics but also broad principles and many generalities about hydropower, flood control and a proposed new third treaty purpose, ecosystem-based functions.

"Certainly within the language of the draft you can have a broad array of interpretations about what the actual outcomes might be," said Scott Corwin, Public Power Council executive director, although he quickly added, "there's also enough specificity and enough focus on . . . some areas that there's reason for serious concerns from the [Columbia River Treaty] Power Group's perspective."

This is intentionally a high-level piece, according to Steve Oliver, U.S. Entity coordinator for BPA (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the entity's other agency). For example, the working draft lacks specific quantity or timing of prospective CRT-related flows, which Oliver acknowledged can generate concerns. But he told me those details are properly left for the U.S. and Canadian governments as they consider the treaty's future, following the U.S. Entity's Northwest recommendation to the U.S. State Department, scheduled by year-end 2013.

The regional treaty-review process is also worth noting here, because I think it, too, has contributed to the contentiousness surrounding the working draft.

The U.S. Entity essentially set up two processes. One is the Sovereign Review Team (SRT), consisting of representatives of the four Northwest states, 15 tribal governments and 11 federal agencies. The other involves regional stakeholders and the general public. Both contributed to the working draft, according to a cover letter from Oliver and David Ponganis, U.S. Entity coordinator for the Corps.

Why this arrangement? Oliver referenced a "somewhat similar" design for the hydrosystem BiOp. He said the entity has invested "a lot of time and effort to make sure we're listening to both those parallel tracks and trying to integrate their interests."

However, SRT meetings have been closed--as I understand, such confidentiality was at least partly intended to avoid tipping off Canada. But it also created a sense of exclusion for non-SRT direct participants, including electric utilities.

"I guess it's parallel in time," Corwin said of the two processes. "It's certainly not equal in stature of input or amount of time."

PPC's initial comments dated Aug. 6 said "this Draft, and the process that created it, is woefully and alarmingly deficient." Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee also strongly objected, saying in an Aug. 2 letter, "The working draft needs to be rewritten."

Utility dissatisfaction centers on several points.

One is a general sense that the working draft is imbalanced toward ecosystem aspects, at the expense of hydropower. "The primary purpose of the U.S. Entity's evaluation of the Treaty should be to determine whether the current obligations and benefits provided by the Treaty need to be rebalanced following the initial 60-year term," wrote the CRT Power Group Aug. 7.

It further cited "a significant mismatch between payments to Canada and diminishing ongoing downstream power benefits in the U.S." BPA estimates the current value of the Canadian Entitlement at $250 million to $350 million annually, and the working draft (among many other sources) said the CRT power benefits "are not equitably shared" among the two nations.

"The treaty review studies have in fact shown that the U.S. receives only 10 percent of the value of the 1,300 MW of capacity and 450 MW of energy that it returns to Canada," according to a letter from General Manager Joe Lukas of Western Montana Electric Generating and Transmission Cooperative.

The Power Group thinks any post-2024 downstream-power-benefit payments to Canada should be capped at half the annual incremental power benefit from coordinated U.S.-Canadian river operations.

"Unfortunately, the draft recommendation fails to focus on this primary issue facing Northwest electric customers," and instead concentrates on ecosystem functions, the group said.

Another source of utility angst is a belief the working draft fails to recognize past and current ecosystem-related measures along the Columbia. Those include, according to a letter from Umatilla Electric Cooperative GM/CEO Steve Eldrige: "significant" spring and summer flow augmentation; federal hydro system derating of 1,200 aMW; $13 billion-plus spending by BPA on fish and wildlife since 1992; and ongoing BPA/Northwest Power and Conservation Council F&W annual program spending exceeding $250 million.

Eldrige noted that the treaty is "not the appropriate venue for U.S. parties to seek additional measures for enhancing the ecosystem."

There is also a line of thinking among utility officials that flood-control benefits should be funded by taxpayers generally, not solely electric ratepayers.

From another perspective, the working draft also falls short, although for very different reasons. "If what you're trying to get is either regional consensus or the basis for getting a modernized treaty that really works for the Northwest going forward, we don't think the working draft as written is going to adequately modernize the treaty, both on points environmental and economics," said Pat Ford, Save Our Wild Salmon executive director.

He thinks ecosystem functions need to be cited more explicitly as a third primary purpose. In his reading of the working draft, Ford sees ecosystem functions in some cases "subordinated" to existing flood control, future water withdrawals and existing hydroelectric operations. SOWS believes the Northwest economy "is significantly based upon a healthy and productive Columbia/Snake river system," which Ford thinks won't happen unless the treaty places ecosystems as a "co-equal purpose."

Flexibility to adapt to climate change and its impacts on the river system should be "significantly inserted, with good strong language," he said.

When I spoke with Ford on Aug. 1, he also said SOWS plans to recommend hydropower, as a treaty purpose, "be generalized to be power production," reflecting growing diversity of the regional energy system, particularly efficiency and renewables. "We're not saying the role of hydro in the Northwest should change in some specific fashion by virtue of rewriting," but it should "recognize the reality that the role of hydro is changing in volume and relation to the overall mix."

As for process, Ford thinks general-public awareness of and engagement on the treaty "is just starting," and although he wouldn't extend the review indefinitely, "Democracy's going to need a little more time to work to get to the goal of the [U.S.] Entity and State [Department], which is regional consensus." He thinks the latter is possible, not in the sense of complete agreement, but at a "working level."

Oliver told me the mid-December deadline for a U.S. Entity recommendation to State is "firm," because--for one reason--delay prolongs the treaty status quo, which he said "has some costs potential to the region if it were to continue."

The more I've delved into the treaty, the more complex and multidimensional it becomes, with the diverse and often competing interests along the river, and the fact it spans two nations. It's also true the treaty's future ultimately is a federal call on both sides of the border, and U.S. Northwest perspectives may take a back seat to who-knows-what national and/or bilateral concerns, even if some "regional consensus" is cobbled together in the next four months.

I have no idea how this plays out, but would offer a handful of observations.

First, the current treaty appears to be unsustainable, at least from the U.S. perspective. It has too many shortcomings and there is too much pressure for change, from a variety of legitimate and powerful domestic interests.

At the same time, the idealist in me sees an historic opportunity to engage Canada on a modernized treaty, broadly acceptable to both countries, balancing the myriad interests of this shared and vital waterway. We're not dealing with Iran or North Korea here--we live astride the longest undefended border in the world, and count Canada among our closest allies.

Nor is the Columbia, despite its conflicts, nearly as disputatious as many other cross-border waterways. It would take great statesmanship on both sides, but if a revamped international river treaty can be hammered out anywhere, this would seem to be the place.

Finally, the treaty's prospects really matter. Seattle energy attorney Eric Christensen, writing in the Northwest Public Power Association's Bulletin in June 2012, called this "literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance for public power to influence the future of the Columbia River." Other interests undoubtedly share this view of opportunity.

So if you're not already, I'd encourage you to pay attention and visit the treaty review website. We will too, and keep you informed as best we can.

Mark Ohrenschall
Analysis: Columbia River Treaty Future Stirs Conflicts -- And Possibilities
NW Fishletter, August 22, 2013

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation