After several years of minimal progress, last week’s announcement that the United States and Canada will begin renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty comes as a welcome relief.
Northwest lawmakers — and northwest newspaper editorial boards, including this one — have been pushing for these talks since 2014. Now, finally, discussions are set to start early next year.
It is great news.
The Columbia River Treaty is a monumental document critical to the Pacific Northwest. It was ratified in 1964, and provides the framework for hydropower production and flood control on the Columbia River.
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The agreement has made the 1,200-mile Columbia into one of the most tightly controlled rivers in the world. Portions of the treaty expire in 2024, but either side was allowed to give a 10-year notice of a desire to modify it. When the treaty hit its 50-year anniversary three years ago, the door was open for review.
While we expect discussions with our neighbors to the north will be amicable, the issues are complicated and an agreement will take time — perhaps months or, dare we say, years.
That is because the U.S. will want to renegotiate and reduce the amount paid to Canada for the role it plays in producing hydropower, which will be a tough deal to make.
The river’s headwaters are in Canada, so officials there determine how much water is released and when.
Managing the Columbia’s flow affects hydropower and flood control, as well as the environment and the economy. It has a major impact on life in the Northwest,
In return for helping produce hydropower in our country, Northwest electricity users pay a “Canadian entitlement,” which provides $250 million to $350 million a year worth of electrical power.
The rub is that amount is more than the U.S. anticipated when the treaty was signed.
A group of U.S. utilities agreed to give $254 million to Canada for half the electricity produced downstream during the first 30 years of the agreement. Then in 1994, the U.S. began paying a yearly amount that fluctuates with market prices, so the payment has increased significantly.
Federal legislators in Oregon and Washington have argued those payments are too high.
It is a safe bet Canadian officials will disagree, and time will be needed for both sides to work out a compromise.
After 53 years, the treaty needs an update. There will be numerous issues to be worked out and there are other groups who will want to have a say in the process. Tribes and environmental groups, for example, will want a new agreement that includes goals for improving salmon runs at Grand Coulee Dam.
We are thankful talks are starting sooner rather than later. Too much is at stake to rush the discussion.