Our Voice: Columbia River Treaty talks need to start now

A year has gone by since Northwest lawmakers first asked the Obama administration to begin talks with Canada over the Columbia River Treaty.

And they are still waiting.

That’s right — it has been more than a year and no progress has been made.

So the congressional delegation from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana recently sent another letter to the president demanding action. This second notice should not be ignored.

The Columbia River Treaty is a complex document that is bound to take time to renegotiate, and lawmakers are smart in wanting discussions to start as early as possible.

The treaty between the United States and Canada has provided the framework for hydropower production and flood control on the Columbia River since it was ratified in 1964. It has turned the 1,243-mile Columbia into one of the most tightly controlled rivers in the world.

The pact hit its 50-year anniversary last year, which opened the door for review. Portions of the agreement expire in 2024, but either the U.S. or Canada can give a 10-year notice of their desire to modify the agreement.

That’s why Northwest legislators wrote the Obama administration last year. They know there are numerous issues to be worked out, and the sooner talks begin, the better.

One of the top priorities for the U.S. will be to renegotiate the amount paid to Canada in return for its giant reservoirs and the role it plays in producing hydropower.

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, ranging from $250 million to $300 million a year.

U.S. officials now have the opportunity to ask the amount be reduced, and they want to take advantage of that. It is doubtful Canadian officials will give up such income easily, so time is needed for both sides to work out a compromise.

In addition, Native American tribes in the U.S. and in Canada are pushing for the treaty to include the return of fish runs that were destroyed by some of the dams. The U.S. appears open to discuss the issue, but Canadian officials already have said restoring fish migration and habitat are beyond the parameters of the treaty.

These are just a couple of examples of topics that need to be addressed, and it is clear the position of U.S. and Canadian officials are not in line. The president needs to listen to Northwest congressional leaders and begin addressing treaty issues now.

The letter written by 26 members of the Senate and House urges the president to initiate negotiations with Canada in 2015 as well as expressing “consternation with how the process has unfolded thus far.”

The president has ignored the Columbia River Treaty long enough. A year already has been wasted by lack of action and time is being wasted.

There should be no more delay.