United States moves closer to negotiating with Canada to modernize international River Treaty
Hanford Reach on the Columbia River
Today Northwest conservation groups and the fishing community praised the U.S. State Department for including ecosystem function in the nation’s negotiation position as it prepares to negotiate the Columbia River Treaty with Canada. The State Department’s decision came in a May 20 letter received on May 28 by members of the Northwest Congressional delegation, and is based on Regional Recommendations issued in December 2013 by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The State Department letter to the Northwest Congressional delegation states, “Based on the Recommendation, we have decided to include flood risk mitigation, ecosystem-based function, and hydropower generation interests in the draft U.S. negotiating position. We hope to approach Canada soon to being discussions on modernization of the Treaty.”
In the face of mounting regional concern about the need for the United States to move forward and negotiate with Canada, the State Department letter emphasizes that modernizing the river treaty is a priority for the nation: “The Administration recognizes the significant economic and cultural role the Columbia River plays in the lives of your constituents in the Pacific Northwest, including numerous communities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. We assure you that the future of the Treaty is a priority, and internal deliberations are gaining momentum.” The State Dept and the Council of Environmental Quality briefed the regional’s Senate staff on February 27 and May 5, and the House staff on May 27.
With glaciers melting in the headwaters and water temperatures rising in the lower Columbia River, climate change is already threatening the river and fisheries that depend on the river. Adding ecosystem function as a third treaty purpose co-equal with hydropower and flood risk management would encourage both Canada and the United States to co-manage the Columbia River as a single river, restore salmon to areas now blocked by dams, and reconnect the river with floodplains.
“There is solid, broad-based support among Northwest states, Tribes, businesses and citizens to promptly begin formal talks with Canada to modernize the half-century-old Columbia River Treaty for tomorrow’s Northwest,” said Pat Ford, representing Save Our wild Salmon. “Conservationists and fishermen applaud the State Department for taking this needed step.”
“WaterWatch of Oregon commends the Obama Administration for taking the initial steps needed to get the region to the goals of abundant salmon runs, healthy river ecosystems and economic vitality for the many communities that depend on the Columbia River,” said John DeVoe, WaterWatch of Oregon’s Executive Director.
The basis for the State Department’s decision is “Regional Recommendation for the Future of the Columbia River Treaty after 2024,” issued in December 2013.That recommendation includes restoring the ecosystem as a primary purpose of an updated treaty, co-equal to hydropower and flood control — a feature that will make the Treaty a model of international water management. “The Regional Recommendation gives the Obama Administration a unique opportunity to improve the health of an iconic international river. The northwest Congressional Delegation, and in particular, Senators Murray and Wyden, are to be commended for recognizing the need to seize the moment,” said Greg Haller, Conservation Director for the Pacific Rivers Council.
“Based on the Recommendation, we have decided to include flood risk mitigation, ecosystem-based function, and hydropower generation interests in the draft U.S. negotiating position. We hope to approach Canada soon to being discussions on modernization of the Treaty.” — U.S. State Department
All four Northwest states, 15 Columbia Basin tribes, fishermen and environmentalists support that recommendation. Religious leaders have joined in support of Tribes and First Nations, based on the Columbia River Pastoral Letter.
“Canada and the United States together have stewardship and justice responsibilities to manage the river as a single ecologic system,” said John Osborn, a Spokane physician and a coordinator of the Ethics & Treaty Project. “In a time of climate change the international effort to modernize the Columbia River Treaty can by summarized with just four words: ‘One River, ethics matter.’”
The Columbia River Treaty went into effect in 1964. In 2024 flood-risk responsibility, now shared by Canada and the U.S., shifts to the United States. Canada would only provide assistance when the U.S. requests help. Such a change will have major impacts in the U.S. on reservoir levels, hydropower production, water supply, irrigation, and salmon. As written, the recommendation includes a public process to explore innovative ways to manage river flows and flood risk.
Center for Environmental Law & Policy | WaterWatch of Oregon
Pacific Rivers Council | Save Our wild Salmon | Sierra Club | Columbia Institute for Water Policy