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Columbia River Treaty Prompts Discussion Of Restoring Salmon Passage To Canadian Headwaters
Posted on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 (PST)

Tribal representatives from north and south of the border, as well as other resource managers, last week stressed their case that a new U.S.-Canada management agreement for the Columbia River hydropower system should include, for the first time, environmental initiatives.

Included in that mix are desires to provide salmon passage to the river’s headwaters.

Habitat in the upper Columbia and tributaries there became inaccessible with the construction first of Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington in 1941, then Chief Joseph Dam, then three dams upstream in Canada.

“It needs to be on the table,” the lead official for the “U.S. Entity” said of comments received on how, or whether, money should be spent to provide access to salmon long-blocked by U.S. and Canadian dams from historic habitat in the upper Columbia River basin.

“It should be a part of our national debate,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ David Ponganis told a gathering of, for the most part, fish and wildlife and power system managers, river user groups and environmental interests, Nov. 19 at the Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane, Wash. Approximately 280 people attended the conference, held Nov. 18-20.

Lake Roosevelt is the reservoir created by Grand Coulee in north-central Washington.

Ponganis, as the Corps’ regional director of programs, oversees approximately $3 billion in annual budgets for water resource projects, military construction and environmental restoration activities throughout the Columbia and Missouri river basins.

The discussion last week focused on the process to develop recommendations, in the United States and Canada, for a future Columbia River Treaty. The current version was signed in 1961.

Implementation began in 1964 of the pact designed to reduce flood risk -- through the construction of dams in British Columbia and the northwest United States, and provide hydropower generation.

The two countries are amidst individual processes to decide where they want to continue and/or change the treaty conditions. Both have said they would announce in December whether or not they will negotiate new terms for the treaty.

While the treaty has no specified end date, it contains provisions that will change its implementation in 2024, most notably the end to prescribed flood control procedures implemented by BC Hydro at dams in Canada.

The Columbia flows south out of Canada into the United States. Dams built as a result of the treaty can store up to 15.5 million acre feet of water.

As part of the treaty, either Canada or the United States may unilaterally terminate most provisions of the treaty in 2024, with a minimum of 10 years’ advance notice, hence the focus is on 2014 and 2024.

Canadian and U.S. “entities” plan by next month to produce recommendations to their governments about whether or not the treaty should be continued and, if so, how the river might be managed for flood control, hydro power production and, in a potentially new twist, ecosystem protection.

U.S. draft recommendations can be found at

Since the original signing of the treaty a number of ecological concerns have been raised, including the listing of numerous salmon and other fish and wildlife species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Of particular concern to tribes in the United States and Canada, as well as conservation and fishing groups, is the potential to restore access for anadromous (ocean-going) salmon and steelhead to the upper reaches of the Columbia in British Columbia.

Salmon historically swam 1,200 miles up the river to spawn. But dam construction for hydro power generation and flood control purposed stalled fish passage first at Grand Coulee and later at Chief Joseph, Columbia River mile 545.

The U.S. Entity, appointed by the president, consists of the Bonneville Power Administration administrator and the Corps’ Northwestern Division commander. The Canadian Entity, appointed by the Canadian cabinet, is the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro).

Historically, a third of the protein consumed by Canadian First Nation’s indigenous people used to come from salmon, according to William Green, director of the Canadian Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a long-time fisheries biologist for the Ktunaxa First Nations. That food source has been lost.

Tribes in the United States and Canada have since the 1950s called for the establishment of passage at Grand Coulee and at Chief Joseph Dam, which was completed downstream of Grand Coulee in 1961. Neither dam affords passage of salmon that might be headed upstream to spawn.

And while the salmon blockages predate the U.S.-Canada agreement on managing Columbia River flows, the new treaty deliberations are seen as a way of bringing new issues into the discussion.

“The ecosystem… tribal interests were not considered,” during pre-1964 treaty discussions, according to Stephen Smith, a consultant of the Upper Columbia United Tribes –C oeur d'Alene Tribe, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The salmon historically forged up into the Spokane and Pend Oreille rivers and tributaries, as well as the upper Columbia region.

Reviving salmon runs to the upper basin is an “issue that is central to the people” of British Columbia’s First Nations, Green said during a panel discussion at last week’s Lake Roosevelt Forum.

“We need to come to a consensus,” Green said of the desire to achieve agreement between the two countries about explorations of potential salmon restoration.

Canada has made provisions in the licenses for Arrow Lakes and Brilliant dams that require passage of anadromous fish at those facilities, once passage is restored at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.

According to Smith, U.S. tribes in the upper Columbia lost harvest of approximately 640,000 salmon/steelhead annually when passage was blocked and Canadian First Nations lost harvest of 125,000 to 746,000 salmon/steelhead annually.

And because of the loss of upriver production, lower Columbia Tribes lost harvest of an estimated 2 million salmon/steelhead produced from above Chief Joseph Dam.

“Like our Canadian brothers and sisters, we feel the loss of salmon. Everybody would benefit from having the fish back,” said Matt Wynne, Spokane Tribe and chair of the Upper Columbia United Tribes

The tribes and others hope to prompt consideration of passage considerations at five dams -- Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee in United States and Arrow, Brilliant and Waneta in Canada.

“Washington is a strong supporter of including ecosystem function in the treaty. This could include consideration of reintroducing salmon across the border,” Tom Karier, a Washington member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council but representing the state of Washington in the discussions about the treaty at the forum.

Canada’s draft recommendations for the treaty issued last month says, “Salmon migration into the Columbia River in Canada was eliminated by the Grand Coulee Dam in 1938 (26 years prior to Treaty ratification), and as such is not a Treaty issue. British Columbia’s perspective is that restoration of fish passage and habitat, if feasible, should be the responsibility of each country regarding their respective infrastructure.”

Another Columbia River Treaty issue discussed at the Forum focused on how much U.S. electricity ratepayers should pay for Columbia River flow management directed by Canada’s BC Hydro to provide water for hydro generation and provide flood control.

U.S. utilities are saying that the price paid by the United States under terms of the Columbia River Treaty is too high. Canadians say the benefits provided to the United States are huge, as is the cost to citizens north of the border who are expressing concerns about the local impacts of management of the Canadian reservoirs.

“What we deal with in Canada is industrial reservoirs. We have everything from mud flats to full pools and ongoing impacts to ecosystems, fish and wildlife, shorelines, air quality from blowing dust, and boating safety. We want no further impacts,” said Deb Kozak, a member of the Nelson, B.C., City Council and chair of the B.C. Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee

“There is a disagreement between the countries” both about how and when Canadian dam controllers should provide flood control and flows to generate power, Kathy Eichenber of Brithish Columbia’s Ministry of Energy and Mines told the Forum audience.

An ongoing public process in British Columbia has settled on the desire that downstream benefits derived from the Columbia River’s water resource – whether they be power generation, flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply or ecosystem maintenance such as enabling fish populations – be shared and enjoyed equally.

The U.S. Entity, in consultation with the Sovereign Review Team that includes affected states and tribes, other regional stakeholders and the public, has been conducting a multi-year review of the Columbia River Treaty to inform a recommendation to the U.S. Department of State on the future of the treaty post-2024.

BPA, which markets power generated in the Federal Columbia River Power System, has funneled treaty “entitlement” payments to the British Columbia government of from $250 million to $350 million per year, which the U.S. Entity says are higher than actual benefits produced in the United States.

“We heard this loud and clear,” Ponganis said of comments received on U.S. Entity draft recommendations released in September. Commenters, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, said that relief is needed for the region’s power consumers, who ultimately pay for that entitlement.

“There have been disagreements before, and we’ve always managed to work them out. Our north star [is] creating and sharing mutual benefits; we look forward to seeing how the U.S. will help create benefits for Canada, " Canada’s Eichenberger said.

For more information, see:

-- CBB, Nov. 1, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty Negotiations Will Impact Libby Dam Operations, Reservoir Drafting/Refill”

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

-- CBB, Sept. 27, 2013, “U.S. Releases Draft Recommendations For ‘Modernizing’ Columbia River Treaty”

-- CBB, Aug. 16, 2013, “Environmentalists Say Columbia River Treaty Needs To Expand To Include ‘Ecosystem-Based Functions”’

-- CBB, Aug. 9, 2013, “Utilities Group Expresses Concern With Columbia River Treaty Draft Recommendations, Process, Scope”

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