As President Barack Obama prepares to host Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for an official state visit on Thursday, Washington state’s leaders in Congress have been busy preparing their wish lists.
Trudeau, the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, is new on the job, having been sworn in on Nov. 4. His election ended nearly a decade of conservative-dominated politics, and his visit to Washington will mark the first by a Canadian leader in two decades.
For Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse and Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, hopes run high that Trudeau’s visit will provide a kick start to the long-stalled Columbia River Treaty, which governs how the two nations divvy up the water supply from the 1,243-mile-long Columbia River, the longest in the Pacific Northwest.
The state’s two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, want to make it easier to go through border crossings into Canada by expanding pre-clearance operations, allowing more people to pass through customs inspections before they travel.
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400,000The number of Americans and Canadians who cross the U.S.-Canadian border each day.
And the White House has its own wish list, with climate change, energy, security and economic issues among the top priorities.
In addition to the talks between the two leaders, the president and first lady Michelle Obama will host Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, at a state dinner Thursday night. Obama and Trudeau are also scheduled to hold a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden if weather allows.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that the visit “will be an opportunity for the United States and Canada to deepen our bilateral relationship, which is one of the closest and most extensive in the world.”
Cantwell wrote a letter to Trudeau shortly after his election, congratulating him and noting that Canada and the U.S. are each other’s largest trading partners, with 400,000 Americans and Canadians crossing the northern border every day.
Last week, Cantwell and Murray introduced a bill that would expand pre-clearance operations at border stops between Canada and the U.S. And the senators said they expect the issue to be discussed when Trudeau comes to Washington.
Cantwell, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said that speeding up border crossings would help both travelers and Washington state’s economy, making it easier to move the state’s products, everything from fish to fruit to technology.
In Washington state, trade with Canada results in more than $25 billion in business each year, accounting for more than 223,000 jobs, according to Cantwell. Canada now ranks as the top export destination for 35 states.
COLUMBIA RIVER TREATY
Shortly after Trudeau’s election, Earnest said the White House was particularly optimistic that the new prime minister would cooperate on climate change, noting that Trudeau had focused on the issue in his campaign and that Obama “certainly would welcome the opportunity to cooperate on that priority.”
That could be good news for backers of the Columbia River Treaty, an agreement that created a massive system of dams for flood control and electricity for the Northwest.
President Dwight Eisenhower signed the treaty with Canada as one of his last official acts in January 1961, when global warming did not rank as a public concern. But now scientists predict that rising temperatures will continue to reduce the snow pack and glacier mass in mountains, resulting in less water during seasonal runoffs.
State officials fear the changes will mean fewer fish and damage the river’s ability to feed the turbines that have produced billions of dollars’ worth of hydropower for both Canada and the United States.
It has been a little frustrating because this is a very important treaty for our region of the country.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Washington
As a result, environmentalists and Indian tribes have pushed hard to make climate change a key issue as U.S. and Canadian officials try to decide whether to extend or change the treaty. Either party may end the agreement on Sept. 16, 2024, with a 10-year notice. The terms of a renegotiated treaty could affect electricity rates and determine how much water is available for everything from hydropower to recreation and irrigation.
The river begins as a stream in the Canadian mountains before entering Lake Roosevelt at the U.S.-Canadian border, then making its way through a system of dams and reservoirs before discharging into the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon.
NEGOTIATIONS JUST STARTING
Members of Congress from Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Montana have been pushing the Obama administration for the last two years to wrap up a renegotiated treaty, without success. That includes Cantwell, Murray and the entire Idaho delegation: Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Republican Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador.
“It has been a little frustrating because this is a very important treaty for our region of the country,” Newhouse said.
Last month, Newhouse met with Brian Doherty, the State Department’s lead negotiator, who was just assigned to the case late last year. Newhouse described him as “a very capable individual” but said he’s only getting started, putting a team in place and familiarizing himself with the issues.
“The meetings with Canadians are very preliminary at this point, so the real meaningful negotiations haven’t begun,” Newhouse said. “It was very frustrating that the administration had not seen fit to engage in the process, but at least now we can say things have started.”
Kilmer said a healthy Columbia River “is essential to our state” and expressed hope that the treaty will be a top priority during the Trudeau visit.
With the State Department ready to move, Kilmer said: “Now it’s time for Canada to step up to the plate.”
Canada and Washington state have something else in common, too: Trudeau has promised to legalize recreational marijuana nationwide, following the lead of Washington state, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.
But that is one issue that is not on Thursday’s agenda.