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Columbia River Treaty Negotiations Will Impact Libby Dam Operations, Reservoir Drafting/Refill
Posted on Friday, November 01, 2013 (PST)

The British Columbia provincial government recently released draft recommendations for a modified Columbia River Treaty, with clear differences with the United States over compensation for flood control and a specific call for adjusted operations at Libby Dam.

The recommendations say the current treaty, enacted between the two countries in 1964, does not adequately account for the downstream flood-control benefits provided by Canada or the resulting impacts north of the border.

“All downstream U.S. benefits, such as flood risk management, hydropower, ecosystems, water supply, recreation, navigation and any other relevant benefits ... should be accounted for and such value created should be shared equitably between the two countries,” the recommendation states, suggesting that Canada will seek higher compensation.

That’s at odds with U.S. draft treaty recommendations that assert the treaty’s so-called “Canadian entitlement” provides Canada with too much compensation for its flood control contributions.

According to a cover letter for the U.S. recommendations, “There is widespread concern that the method included in the treaty for calculating Canada’s share of its power benefits is outdated and no longer equitable, resulting in excessive costs to regional ratepayers.”

(See CBB, Oct. 18, 2013, “B.C. Releases Draft Columbia River Treaty Recommendations, Wants Full Accounting Of U.S. Benefits”

Under the current treaty, the Bonneville Power Administration delivers Canadian Entitlement energy estimated to be worth between $250 million and $350 million a year at the expense of Pacific Northwest regional power customers.

Final recommendations will be forwarded at the end of the year, setting the stage for formal negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the Canadian federal government to adopt a new treaty by 2024.

The U.S. recommendations also stress that “there is broad interest in reaching agreement with Canada on how we will conduct coordinated flood risk management,” another area where there appear to be significant differences between the two sides with implications for operations at Libby Dam.

Brian Marotz, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist who has long been involved with pursuing optimal Libby Dam operations, said differences initially appeared to be “alarming” but in some ways the two countries are not that far apart on coordinated flood risk management.

He explained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has long sought to keep flows, with the help of Canadian reservoir storage, from exceeding 450,000 cubic feet per second at The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River.

Canada’s draft recommendations, however, say that a “called-upon flood control request” from Canada should occur only when flows reach 600,000 cfs at The Dalles, and even then the United States “must make effective use of all related storage in the United States.”

To Marotz, that would put the Corps in a position of having to lower reservoirs such as Lake Koocanusa far more than necessary to provide storage space to prevent flooding.

As it stands, Libby Dam operates under a variable flow, or VAR-Q, approach where Lake Koocanusa storage is determined by inflows: more drafting during the wettest years and less during drier years.

A hard-line requirement for deep drawdowns at Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse Reservoir — just in case flooding might happen — could make it far more difficult to refill the reservoirs if there aren’t adequate inflows.

And that’s where interests of the two countries start to converge, Marotz said.

The Canadian draft recommendations also specifically call for “improved coordination on Libby Dam,” largely because Canadians believe the transboundary reservoir frequently doesn’t refill, to the detriment of habitat and recreation on the reservoir north of the border.

Variable flow is so far the best approach to providing flood control for both countries, but there are already efforts underway to further modify Libby Dam operations for the benefit of Canada, said Marotz, who is a member of the U.S. Sovereign Technical Team working on treaty recommendations.

A two-page document explaining VAR-Q and proposed modifications has been drafted, outlining a strategy to reduce the potential for premature reservoir refill, the necessity for releasing water over the dam’s spillway to the detriment of downstream fish, and the potential for downstream flooding that can impact Kootenay Lake on the Canadian side of the border.

Those are areas where there are shared goals, said Marotz, who believes improved operations at Libby Dam can be achieved to the satisfaction of both countries.

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