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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
-- CBB, Dec. 8, 2017, “U.S. - Canada Columbia
River Treaty Negotiations Expected To Begin In Early 2018” http://www.cbbulletin.com/439924.aspx
-- CBB, Oct. 27, 2017, “U.S. State Department
Picks New Columbia River Treaty Negotiator” http://www.cbbulletin.com/439784.aspx
-- CBB, June 24, 2016, “Cantwell, Canadian
Ambassador Meet To Discuss Columbia River Treaty Ahead Of North American
-- CBB, March 18, 2016, “Cantwell Secures
Commitment From Canadian Prime Minister To Move Forward With Columbia River
-- CBB, March 11, 2016, “Cantwell Urges
Canadian Prime Minister To Start Talks On Columbia River Treaty; Murray Quizzes
-- CBB, Feb. 12, 2016, “Cross-Border Coalition
Urges Collaboration In Modernizing U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty” http://www.cbbulletin.com/436053.aspx
-- 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,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/433725.aspx
-- CBB, Sept. 19, 2014, “Columbia River Treaty
Reaches Age 50 This Week; British Columbia, U.S. Considering Future Options” http://www.cbbulletin.com/432128.aspx
-- CBB, March 21, 2014, “British Columbia
Announces Decision To Continue Columbia River Treaty While Seeking
-- CBB, Feb. 28, 2014 “15 Basin Tribes,
Canadian First Nations Issue Report On Restoring Upper Columbia Salmon
-- CBB, Dec. 20, 2013, “Final Recommendations
For Revising Columbia River Treaty With Canada Sent To State Department,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/429315.aspx
-- CBB, Nov. 27, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty
Prompts Discussion Of Restoring Salmon Passage To Canadian Headwaters” http://www.cbbulletin.com/429144.aspx
-- CBB, Nov. 1, 2013, “Columbia River Treaty
Negotiations Will Impact Libby Dam Operations, Reservoir Drafting/Refill,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/428897.aspx
-- 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” http://www.cbbulletin.com/428444.aspx
-- CBB, Aug. 16, 2013, “Environmentalists Say
Columbia River Treaty Needs To Expand To Include ‘Ecosystem-Based Functions,”’ http://www.cbbulletin.com/427918.aspx
-- CBB, Aug. 9, 2013, “Utilities Group
Expresses Concern With Columbia River Treaty Draft Recommendations, Process,