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State Department Holds Town Hall On Negotiations With Canada For Modernized Columbia River Treaty
Posted on Friday, April 27, 2018 (PST)

A panel of six people charged with negotiating terms of a modernized Columbia River Treaty on behalf of the United States met with straightforward and sometimes critical comments during a “town hall” meeting in Spokane Wednesday.


About 125 people attended the event sponsored by the U.S. State Department at the Historic Davenport Hotel, which kicked off a new series of public meetings that will be held in coming months as the U.S. team prepares negotiating positions that will be pursued when talks with the Canadian government get underway.


The State Department intends to use the town halls as a means of providing updates as efforts to modernize the treaty proceed, continuing a public process that got underway in 2010 and concluded in 2013 with a “regional recommendation” for revising a treaty that was ratified in 1964.


“Our key objectives include continued, careful management of flood risk; ensuring a reliable and economical power supply; and better addressing the ecosystem in a modernized treaty regime,” says State Department materials that were provided at the meeting.


Jill Smail, the lead negotiator with the State Department’s Office of Canadian Affairs, stressed at the outset that “we aren’t going to re-open the recommendations” process.


She was joined at the head table by other members of the U.S. “entity” negotiating team: Dave Ponganis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; John Roche of the Bureau of Reclamation; Paul Wagner of NOAA Fisheries; Kieran Connolly of the Bonneville Power Administration; Gayle Lear, a legal adviser with the Corps of Engineers.


Audience members pressed Smail on why the recommendation process wouldn’t continue, for the purposes of being more inclusive in building on about 4,000 public comments that were submitted up until 2013.


“The reason we’re doing that was we’re transitioning to another phase, a negotiations phase,” Smail responded, adding that some considered the initial approach as being too unwieldy to convey a focused negotiating platform. The State Department’s objective, she said, “was to have a focused team.”


Many speakers criticized the exclusion of tribal representatives from the negotiating team, and urged some degree of tribal involvement with the team.


Smail said the State Department has offered to conduct “consultations” with tribal interests as the negotiations phase proceeds.


Norma Sanchez, chairwoman of the Confederated Colville tribal government, questioned whether members of the negotiating team know “what’s best” for the region, considering poverty rates and environmental degradation that are prevalent in parts of the Columbia Basin.


Sanchez said “it is very concerning” that indigenous nations do not have a more prominent role in the process.


One audience member pointed out how there aren’t any details for the public to comment on, regarding the negotiating team’s positions.


“We don’t go into detail of our negotiating positions until the appropriate time,” Smail said. “Sometimes negotiations have to evolve before you can share specifics with the region.”


A recurring theme throughout the meeting was a call for “ecosystem functions” to become an equal priority for a treaty that has solely prescribed measures for flood control and power generation. Ecosystem functions refers in good part to practices that have evolved for managing water and hydropower in a way that causes the least harm to fish and wildlife.


Variable flow, or VAR-Q, operations at dams are one form of ecosystem function that has already been adopted at U.S. projects including Libby Dam and Hungry Horse Dam in Montana. But advocates are pressing for ecosystem functions to be enshrined with priority in a modernized treaty.


“Ecosystem function should be equal to flood control and hydro, and not just something that’s added in,” said John Osborne, a Spokane physician who is the coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Columbia River Future Project.


Osborne also said he hoped the decision to exclude tribal representatives from the negotiating team would be re-visited.


“There is no better voice to speak for ecosystem functions than the sovereign nations” of native people, said another man.


People from other interests also spoke up, including representatives of electric cooperatives, irrigation districts and Columbia River commerce.


They generally acknowledged there is room for improvement in meeting ecosystem function concerns, but they urged the continuing priorities of providing for reliable flood control, river flows and hydropower operations.


One pointed out that ratepayers already pay millions into environmental mitigation, so it is not as if those concerns are already a priority. A man speaking for economic interests in the Tri-Cities, a major hub for Columbia River shipping and railroad traffic, said reliable flows and affordable power are critical considerations.


“We must accept that we have created economies around this treaty,” he said.


A man representing irrigation districts in the eastern part of the basin, urged negotiators to be aware of future growth needs that will require more water.


A Columbia River shipping pilot said he was interested in seeing stability in water management for navigation purposes, along with a “balance” for flood control and other concerns. “I don’t think people understand just how much commerce makes its way down the river,” he said.


Smail told the audience early on that there is awareness that continued population growth and development have made flood risk management “as important as ever” in the Columbia Basin.


A man who lives on the Upper Columbia River near the Canadian border spoke of the importance of established economic and cultural relations with Canadians who are affected by the way water is managed on Lake Roosevelt.


“That mud flats are totally amazing,” he said, referring to the vast areas upriver from Lake Roosevelt that are regularly de-watered to provide water storage for flood control in Washington. Docks are left high and dry and when the mud flats dry out, dust storms impact resort towns in British Columbia.


Like others who spoke, the man said he considers the treaty negotiations an opportunity to consider those impacts, along with meeting economic concerns and pursuing environmental goals such as the potential for returning salmon to Upper Columbia Basin waters.


Flood control in the current Columbia River Treaty expires in 2024, and that is the earliest time which the treaty can be terminated, provided that either Canada or the United States provides 10 years notice of their intent to let that happen. The alternative is the ongoing process of negotiating a modernized treaty.


To follow this process since 2013, see these stories:


-- CBB, Dec. 8, 2017, “U.S. - Canada Columbia River Treaty Negotiations Expected To Begin In Early 2018”


-- CBB, Oct. 27, 2017, “U.S. State Department Picks New Columbia River Treaty Negotiator”


-- CBB, June 24, 2016, “Cantwell, Canadian Ambassador Meet To Discuss Columbia River Treaty Ahead Of North American Summit”


-- CBB, March 18, 2016, “Cantwell Secures Commitment From Canadian Prime Minister To Move Forward With Columbia River Treaty”


-- CBB, March 11, 2016, “Cantwell Urges Canadian Prime Minister To Start Talks On Columbia River Treaty; Murray Quizzes Moniz”


-- CBB, Feb. 12, 2016, “Cross-Border Coalition Urges Collaboration In Modernizing U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty”


-- CBB, June 12, 2015, “State Department: Columbia River Treaty Negotiating Position To Include ‘Ecosystem-Based Function,”


-- CBB, April 17, 2015, “NW Congressional Delegation Urges Obama To Initiate Negotiations On Columbia River Treaty,”


-- CBB, Sept. 19, 2014, “Columbia River Treaty Reaches Age 50 This Week; British Columbia, U.S. Considering Future Options”


-- CBB, March 21, 2014, “British Columbia Announces Decision To Continue Columbia River Treaty While Seeking ‘Improvements,’”


-- CBB, Feb. 28, 2014 “15 Basin Tribes, Canadian First Nations Issue Report On Restoring Upper Columbia Salmon Passage,”


-- CBB, Dec. 20, 2013, “Final Recommendations For Revising Columbia River Treaty With Canada Sent To State Department,”


-- CBB, Nov. 27, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty Prompts Discussion Of Restoring Salmon Passage To Canadian Headwaters”


-- 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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