U.S. Officials Say Columbia River Treaty Negotiations With Canada Off To Good Start; Next Round Set
Posted on Friday, June 01, 2018 (PST)

Negotiations with Canada over a revised Columbia River Treaty got off to a good start this week, said senior U.S. government officials involved, but they were tight-lipped about specific negotiating positions or areas of contention that might arise as talks continue.


“We just wrapped up two very productive days of negotiations with Canada,” said one official, adding that talks at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., Tuesday and Wednesday largely involved the two countries laying out their respective objectives, outlining the scope of the negotiations and reaffirming the spirt of cooperation that has made the treaty an international model for transboundary water agreements since it was adopted in 1964.


Francisco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary of State, opened the negotiations and issued a statement referring to the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty regime.


“There is a whole swath of arrangements established under this durable yet flexible treaty that should be modernized,” he said. “In both countries, our understanding of the river and the basin has changed since the development of the transboundary system treaty dams in British Columbia and one in Montana.”


Palmieri said he refers to the treaty “regime” as shorthand for the “myriad technical mechanisms and arrangements that translate the agreement into day-to-day realities. It is in these details where the United States wants to see improvements.”


He said the U.S. objectives include continued, careful management of flood risk; ensuring a reliable and economical power supply; and better addressing ecosystem concerns.


But when asked for more details about U.S. and Canadian positions, an official participating in Thursday’s teleconference said, “I’m not going to go into our specific negotiating positions.”


“We are in the early stages right now … We are just laying out what our future objectives are at this point,” she added.


Asked about whether the Trump Administration’s actions on re-negotiating NAFTA, steel and aluminum tariffs, softwood lumber trade, dairy trade and other commerce could hamper or overshadow treaty negotiations, the official said “we have no indication that these negotiations will be impacted.”


Difficult matters that are expected by many to possibly arise include a call for re-opening salmon habitat in the Upper Basin that has been blocked by dams for decades, increasing flows on the 1,200-mile Columbia River to benefit migrating salmon, and the so-called “Canadian Entitlement” that provides Canada with electrical power valued at $250 million to $350 million a year in exchange for storing water for flood control and hydro generation in three Canadian reservoirs created by dams that resulted from the treaty.


Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., has pointed to estimates that the entitlement payments are worth 10 times the reciprocal benefits Canada provides, and those payments affect utility bills of 6.4 million customers in the Pacific Northwest.


Other members of Congress have weighed in with statements about the importance of the treaty talks getting underway.


“The Columbia River Treaty is integral to so much of the Pacific Northwest way of life — from our economy, to our environment, to our culture and heritage — it’s hard to overstate the importance of updating this treaty to meet modern-day issues and getting this right,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “I applaud the U.S. Department of State for the extensive preparation and time already invested in the upcoming negotiations, and I look forward to productive conversation and action that benefits every party involved in this critically important pact.”


“This is a very positive step,” said Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “The State Department and Canada must now work to include input from all parties.”


Not all parties are pleased with the treaty negotiation process: Columbia Basin tribes and First Nations in Canada have expressed their displeasure for not having a seat at the negotiating table.


Dr. Micheal Marchand, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington, said 15 Indian Nations have been “apparently excluded” from a negotiating team that includes representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Interior, the Bonneville Power Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. State Department.


“These tribes need and deserve to have meaningful input into the treaty re-negotiation process,” he said. “This is a necessary and important negotiation which will affect all of us and Columbia River Tribes should have representation at these talks.”


He said the Columbia River has for centuries been crucial to the economies, subsistence and cultures of the tribes and remain so to this day, after dams blocked all passage of salmon to the Upper Columbia Basin.


“The U.S. government has routinely adopted policies and made decisions that were destructive to the health of the Columbia, disastrous for its fish, and detrimental to Columbia River Basin tribal cultures and traditions,” Marchand said. “This river was the center of native trade and commerce, and a touchstone for our cultures and traditions.”


Those participating in Thursday’s tele-conference reiterated their view that tribes have been consulted in developing a U.S. “consensus” guide and a regional recommendation that came out in 2013.


As Palmieri put it in his statement: “The U.S. negotiating team deeply values the expertise and experience of the tribes and will continue to consult with them on a regular basis as negotiations proceed. We are committed to keeping our American partners informed of our progress on a regular basis as negotiations proceed.”


The Canadian federal government is getting similar criticism from First Nations: the Okanagan, Shuswap and Ktunaxa nations recently expressed outrage at being excluded from the negotiations, with blame being directed at Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.


“This completely unexpected and shocking unilateral decision by Minister Freeland to exclude indigenous nations is an act of absolute treachery,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union BC Indian Chiefs and chairman of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.


“This is a fundamental betrayal of our three Nations’ indigenous rights; it undermines recognition and threatens the reconciliation path that Prime Minister Trudeau has so boldly championed.”


But British Columbia media reported on a statement issued by Global Affairs Canada, claiming the government has been actively seeking input from First Nations regarding the treaty and will continue to be engaged with First Nations.


“Our conversations with these three First Nations will absolutely continue throughout the duration of these negotiations. We are committed to ensuring their voices and perspectives are heard and at the center of our negotiating priorities,” the statement reads.


Global Affairs Canada has proposed creating a negotiating advisory team along with developing a framework to integrate advice and input from First Nations, and setting aside federal funds to pay for First Nation travel and participation throughout the negotiations.


The next round of closed negotiation is scheduled for Aug. 15-16 in British Columbia. The U.S. negotiating team has said public updates on significant developments will be provided.


Information on the U.S. Entity Regional Recommendation for the Future of the Columbia River Treaty After 2024, which was published in December of 2013, can be found at:




For background see:


-- CBB, April 27, 2018, “State Department Holds Town Hall On Negotiations With Canada For Modernized Columbia River Treaty” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440608.aspx


-- 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, March 21, 2014, “British Columbia Announces Decision To Continue Columbia River Treaty While Seeking ‘Improvements,’” http://www.cbbulletin.com/430094.aspx


-- 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, Oct. 18, 2013, “B.C. Releases Draft Columbia River Treaty Recommendations, Wants Full Accounting Of U.S. Benefits,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/428719.aspx

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