Center for

  Environmental Law & Policy

Columbia River Treaty

Frequently Asked Questions - Treaty Talking Points

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Talking Points for the US Entity

Slow down:  the US Entity needs to postpone the September 2013 deadline to evaluate all options.  It is more important to take necessary time to evaluate how hydro system operations can most help in fish recovery and other aquatic functions.   

- The US must maximize transparency.  The CRT effects many different people and interests -- the US Entity and State Department should engage in enhanced public education and open and regular dialogue with the public about development of Treaty options.   

- The US Entity should be thanked for adopting “Ecosystem Function” as a primary driver for evaluating Treaty changes.  But it also must go beyond ESA-driven actions and embrace comprehensive restoration of the Columbia River.

- The US should evaluate fish passage at Grand Coulee Dam and above Brownlee Dam on the Snake River, as called for by the Tribes.

- The US should evaluate increased use of non-structural flood control to reduce reliance on reservoirs and improve the ecological function of flood plains.  

- The US should consider alternative forms of future Treaty implementation, including river basin governance and other public and collaborative processes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the CRT? 

Why do we have the CRT?  

What’s happening with the Treaty?  

What’s happening with flood control?  

Why is this important?

Who are the parties?

What about Tribes and First Nations?

What is the US approach to the CRT?

What is Canada’s approach?

How will Climate Change impact the Columbia River Treaty?

What can people do?

What is the CRT?

In 1964 the US and Canada agreed on coordinated management of the Columbia River to maximize flood control and hydropower generation in both nations.  This agreement is the Columbia River Treaty (CRT).  Pursuant to the CRT, Canada built 3 dams that are effectively controlled by the US.  These 3 dams are managed to significantly increase power generation at the 11 U.S. dams downstream.

A unique feature of the CRT is “shared benefits”: half of the surplus power generated in the US because of the three Canadian dams goes to Canada. The US paid Canada for the value of this extra power for 30 years after the Canadian dams were built. Then in 2003 the US began to transmit the power to Canada.


Both the US and Canada receive more power than they can use locally or regionally.  Both power management agencies (Bonneville Power Administration “BPA” in the US and British Columbia Hydropower “BC Hydro” in Canada) are net exporters of energy.

The US also prepaid Canada to prevent flood control damage in the US for 60 years, ending in 2024.

The Treaty designates a US Entity and a Canadian Entity. These two entities work together to coordinate and implement the two purposes of the CRT: hydropower generation and flood control.

(map: Four dams resulting from the CRT: 3 treaty dams in Canada, and 1 nontreaty dam (Libby Dam) in the US.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, posted on

The US Entity consists of representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). BC Hydro, a crown corporation, is the Canadian Entity. The two Entities are advised by a permanent engineering board. 

The two Entities have achieved and maintain a very high level of coordination. Each year the Entities develop and issue a Detailed Operations Plan, and a Flood Control Operations Plan.  Multiple dams are operated such that the amount of water going through each turbine is coordinated, and this coordination takes place day-to-day, or even more often.  The result is that the Columbia River Basin hydropower system is managed as a whole. Although many dams on the Columbia River’s mainstem and tributaries are not formally a part of the CRT, all generating dams are operated together.

Dam operations to maximize power generation and flood control have been modified. For example since the listing of 13 species of Columbia River salmon under the Endangered Species Act in the United States, the annual operating plans include requirements such as spill and flow augmentation for species recovery.   (NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Five-Year Review of Endangered Species Act-Listed Salmon & Steelhead.)

(photo: Transmission lines.  Hydropower generation and flood control were the purposes of the 1964 CRT. OSHA photo)

Map showing Interties to Alberta and the U.S.  Source:  BC Transmission Corporation.

The CRT may be terminated by either Canada or the US starting in 2024 if either party gives at least 10 years notice to the other. Canada may not give notice to terminate without first getting approval from British Columbia.  The earliest that either nation may request CRT termination is 2014.

(map: Map showing principle transmission lines, Western Electricity Coordinating Council. Click on map to enlarge.)

Noteworthy is that during the deliberations and ratification of the CRT, no consideration was given to impacts on fisheries, Tribes and First Nations, or cultural sites. These issues and commitments were simply not recognized in the CRT.

Why do we have the CRT?  

The development of the CRT started in the 1930s. In 1941 the US completed Grand Coulee Dam, the lynchpin of the Columbia Basin hydropower system. US federal dams on the Columbia River were built for dual primary purposes of hydropower generation and flood control. Hydropower from Grand Coulee Dam was considered pivotal to victory in World War II – enabling aluminum for warplanes and plutonium at Hanford for the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities. 

(photo: Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia River - with water diversions for irrigated agriculture. US Bureau of Reclamation)

In 1948 devastating floods across the Columbia Basin in both countries during May and early June prompted the US in particular to recognize that infrastructure was not sufficient to protect communities. In an era marked by engineering “fixes,” to fix the flooding risks aggravated by floodplain development, the US and Canada asked the International Joint Commission to study the potential for a US-Canada treaty to build more dams. That study was issued in 1959, leading to a one-year negotiation and treaty document. The US immediately ratified the Columbia River Treaty. 

(photo:  Vanport, Oregon flood, 1948.  For more on the largest WWII federal housing project, click here.)

In Canada disagreements between federal and BC provincial governments over ownership of the CRT’s three Canadian dams and power-revenue sharing delayed treaty ratification until 1964. Agreements between the Canadian federal government and the BC government are appended to the CRT.

What’s happening with the Treaty? 

The CRT specifies that in 2024 – 60 years after treaty ratification by Canada and the United States –Canada or the US may terminate the Treaty. However, that party must give 10 years notice. The earliest date that notice can be given is 2014. Both governments and Entities are actively evaluating the potential to terminate or, more likely, modify their terms of the CRT.

What’s happening with flood control?  

One of the two purposes of the 1964 CRT is flood control. A mandatory change in flood control operations that will occur in 2024 is driving the discussions about re-negotiating the treaty. 

The US prepaid Canada for 60 years of flood control and has been directing Canada on how to manage its 3 dams. This is referred to as “assured” flood control operations.  Starting in 2024 dams in the Columbia River Basin will be managed differently. Primary responsibility for flood control will shift to US reservoirs. The US will no longer have authority to fluctuate reservoir levels in B.C. to achieve flood control in the US. 

After 2024 the US will be able to “call upon” Canada for flood control help. However, the US must first make “effective use” of all available US storage. If the US does call upon Canada for flood control assistance, it will have to pay Canada for the foregone benefits and impacts.

The consequence is that US dams will draw down storage reservoirs more deeply, and with more potential impact. Deeper drawdowns increase the likelihood that US reservoirs will not refill each year. This could impact the availability of water for out-of-stream uses by the agricultural sector, and in-stream spills and augmentation for fisheries. Climate change is expected to exacerbate these changes (see below).

(photo: Bath tub ring - Grand Coulee Dam / Lake Roosevelt. In 2024, the CRT requires that flood control change from “assured” to “called upon” – shifting responsibility from Canada to the US.  The resulting increasing reservoir fluctuations may impact existing uses.  Here is Lake Roosevelt – water impounded behind Grand Coulee Dam. Rachael Osborn photo)

Dams on the US side of the Columbia River Basin where fluctuations of reservoir levels is likely to be greatest to provide flood control include: Grand Coulee, Libby, Dworshak, Brownlee, and John Day.

In addition Canada has indicated it believes that all reservoirs with storage capacity on the mainstem Columbia River and tributaries should be operated to maximize flood control to satisfy the CRT’s “effective use” requirement.

One conflict between flood control and water availability is illustrated by the decision how to define a flood. For the Columbia River, floods are defined by flow at the Dalles Dam near Portland. Should floods be defined as 450 kcfs or 600 kcfs at the Dalles Dam? If floods are defined at 600 kcfs then impacts on US dams and reservoirs will be much less – but increase the risk of flood-damage to vulnerable communities. A lower trigger flow may also increase the frequency of requests by the US for “called upon” Canadian storage.

Why is this important?

Because of the change in flood control, the upcoming change in the CRT means changes in hydropower operations and uses of the Columbia River – both instream and out-of-stream.  Electricity will be more expensive. Less water will be available for agriculture and less also for ESA protections. US reservoirs will fluctuate more. In effect the tables will turn. The future will be different than the present.

With these changes and the international discussions are opportunities to redress historic wrongs done to Tribes and First Nations, and damage to the Columbia River and fisheries. 

Who are the parties?

Treaties are political instruments. As an international water allocation treaty, a revised CRT would be negotiated by the US Department of State and Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

In preparing to renegotiate the CRT, the Department of State has tasked the US Entity (ACOE and BPA) with devising a set of recommendations that are presently scheduled for delivery to the State Department in September 2013. 

The US Entity has created the Sovereign Review Team (SRT) and a Sovereign Technical Team. The SRT is composed of representatives from 4 states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana); 5 representatives of the 15 Indian nations in the US portion of the Columbia River Basin; and 11 federal agencies. The SRT
provides oversight of technical studies, public outreach, stakeholder dialogues, and development of recommendations.

In Canada the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines is charged with developing recommendations for renegotiating the CRT.

In addition the Columbia Basin Trust is conducting extensive public outreach regarding the CRT in the BC portion of the Columbia River Basin. The BC Columbia Basin Trust Act established the trust to benefit the region most adversely affected by the CRT.

What about Tribes and First Nations?

In both the US and Canada the 1964 CRT completely subordinated native peoples’ rights and resources. Twenty years earlier, Grand Coulee Dam had destroyed salmon runs in the Upper Columbia River in the US and eastern BC. The CRT expanded Columbia River dam impacts by flooding cultural sites and entire towns -- with devastating losses that in most cases were never compensated.

(photo: Salmon leaping at Kettle Falls -- before the dams. At the time of Lewis & Clark, and David Thompson, the Columbia River was the great salmon-producing river on earth.  photo: Northwest Power and Conservation Council - Kettle Falls)

In the US, Native American Tribes are recognized as sovereign governments and are participating at a higher level. The 15 Columbia Basin Tribes have published a collaborative policy paper called “Common Views” along with a set of “Goals and Objectives.” US Tribes are also collaborating with First Nations located in the BC portion of the Columbia River Basin.

(photo: Celilo Falls - Columbia River.  People gathering for salmon fishing -- before the dams. photo from NAS, Managing the Columbia River)

The Common Views document very sensibly states that Tribes should be included as part of the Treaty governance and implementation process, that ecological processes must be protected and promoted, and that Tribes should receive equitable benefits in the management of the Columbia River.

Under Canadian law, First Nations are entitled to consultation and accommodation. As discussed below, British Columbia is conducting the consultation process on behalf of Canada.

What is the US approach to the CRT?

The US Entity has decided that the US recommendations will encompass three primary purposes to inform its position: hydropower generation, flood control, and “ecosystem-based function.”

The US Entity is conducting three iterations of scenarios that will evaluate the impacts of different flows and reservoir management scenarios on the three primary goals as well as other uses of the Columbia River (e.g., agriculture water supply, navigation, and recreation).

(photo:  Libby Dam.  The CRT cleared the way for this dam in Montana -- which backed water into Canada.  US Army Corps of Engineers photo)

The Sovereign Review Team has met with stakeholders on the topics of hydropower, flood control, ecosystem function, and Washington’s local government (representing agriculture, primarily).

Stakeholder perspectives vary. Mid-Columbia utility districts favor amendments that would relieve them of obligations to deliver up to 27% of the power owed to Canada under the benefits-sharing component of the existing CRT.

Twenty-one non-federal power providers have formed the CRT Power Group to lobby and advise regarding their interests. They have identified concerns about who will pay for future flood control operations. They have also stated support for “river operations that favor power generation while protecting natural resources.”

Tribes also want increased flow to restore ecosystem functions, notably estuaries in the lower Columbia River.

In preparing for treaty negotiations with Canada, the process by which the US will resolve such internal conflicts is unclear.  Some parties have questioned the US deadline of September 2013 as being too soon for preparing final recommendations to the Department of State. More time is needed to complete the complex modeling and three rounds of public participation. Secretary Hillary Clinton’s recently announced decision to leave as Secretary of State will increase challenges for the US Entity and bolster calls to slow down so as to assure quality decision-making for the Columbia River.

What is Canada’s approach?

British Columbia, on behalf of Canada, is modeling power generation and flood control options to evaluate impacts of holding BC their reservoirs at more constant levels. BC is engaged in consultation with First Nations, and with the citizens of BC who live in the Columbia River basin.   

(photo: Canada and Columbia River flow. 15% of the Columbia Basin is in Canada -- producing 40-50% of water in the Columbia River.  Here is Slocan Lake in one of the many glaciated trenches that comprise interior British Columbia.  John Osborn photo)

Many British Columbians in the Columbia Basin are unhappy with how the CRT operates. Most of the benefits of the CRT were enjoyed by areas outside the Basin while most of the negative effects were, and still are, felt within the Basin.

(photo: Treaty Dam #2  - Hugh Keenleyside Dam originally called the Arrow Dam, is the second of three Columbia River Treaty dams built in Canada. Completed in 1968 the dam is located on the Columbia River north of Castlegar. BC Hydro photo)

In Canada there was a lack of prior consultation with the people of the Basin, including the 2,300 residents who were displaced when dams flooded their communities and farms. The people of the Basin came together in the early 1990s to press the Province to recognize the injustice of this situation. Local governments in the Basin coordinated their efforts at the regional district and tribal council level under the Columbia River Treaty Committee, ultimately creating the Columbia Basin Trust.

(photo:  Burning homes, Renata, BC.  The CRT treaty dams forced 2,300 people to relocate.)

BC Hydro (the Canadian Entity) is receiving energy valued at $200-300 million per year, a good deal. The Canadian position with respect to Treaty termination or amendment is being reviewed and developed by the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines.  To date, BC has indicated it sees no reason to terminate the Treaty.  BC may be open to amendments but, as in the US, when and how such negotiations would occur has not been publicly disclosed.

(photo: Treaty Dam #3:  Mica Dam, completed in 1973, was the third Columbia River Treaty dam built in Canada.  BC Hydro photo)

BC is on track to prepare its analysis for Treaty termination by September 2013, but has indicated that it  has chosen this date solely to keep up with the US Entity’s accelerated review.

The impending changes triggered by the CRT’s flood control provisions have opened the door to many interests who want change in management of the Columbia River system of dams.   Renegotiation will not occur in isolation. Trade, energy, and other issues could emerge, shaping the outcome for the Columbia River.

The US and Canada have the longest shared and unprotected border in the world. The two nations are at peace , and committed to peaceful resolution of differences.  While some nations go to war over water, differences over the Columbia River and water allocation will resolve peacefully.  What is unclear is whether the two nations are committed to cooperative management of the Columbia River.

How will Climate Change impact the Columbia River Treaty?

Greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere, and global temperatures are rising.  This phenomenon is occurring in the Columbia River Basin as elsewhere on the planet. Climate scientists predict changes in the timing of storms and storm intensity. Increasing temperatures affect precipitation and whether it falls as rain or snow.  Increased temperatures in the Columbia Basin also reduce snow pack in the mountains and melt glaciers.  Climate changes are already unfolding and will intensify as the century progresses.

For the Columbia River, flows in the mainstem and tributaries are already changing:  earlier peak flows, potentially bigger flood events, and lower flows in the summer causing higher water temperatures. 

(photo: Headwaters of the Columbia River, British Columbia. Returning salmon swam 1,200 miles and 2690 feet (820 meters) to return here.  John Osborn photo)

Pressures on the river will increasingly converge in late summer when flows are lowest, weather is hotter, and demand for energy to power air conditioners is greatest. Water will be needed to generate electricity to meet demands.  Less water will be available to divert (with more curtailments of irrigation water at a time when there may be higher demand for water for crops).   Higher in-river water temperatures will increase stress for fisheries, creating thermal barriers and more widespread lethal conditions for cold water fish.  

Bigger floods will exacerbate the need to manage dams in the Columbia River Basin to reduce flood damage.  After 2024, these impacts will fall mostly on US dams when in 2024 flood control changes from “assured” to “called upon”.

(photo:  The Columbia River near Portland.  International discussions about the future of this great river are underway.  Lend your voice to making Ecosystem Functions the priority use of the Columbia River. Wikipedia photo)

Columbia River salmon runs, already devastated, will be further jeopardized by the consequences of climate change, including lower summer streamflows and increasing water temperature.  For salmon to survive, the US’s newly recognized priority of Ecosystem Function will need to supplant maximized hydropower generation as the top goal of managing the Columbia River.

In 2024 under the existing CRT, BC’s goal to maintain consistent reservoir elevations will likely mean less water flowing to the US.  Combining the CRT with climate change will intensify conflicts over water scarcity and reduce energy production at US dams.

What you can do:

- Attend US Entity workshops

  1. -Read CELP’s overview and talking points

  2. -Send in an e-mail, if you can’t attend.

- Attend AWRA meeting in Ellensburg in September

  1. -Join CELP and support CELP’s Treaty Watch Program.