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Columbia River Treaty Negotiators Hear Views In Spokane Forum From Both Sides Of Border
Posted on Friday, July 27, 2018 (PST)

The lead negotiators for the United States and Canada tasked with modernizing the Columbia River Treaty remained reserved and diplomatically congenial during a forum on the treaty in Spokane this week, but other people weren’t shy in sharing their views on how the 1964 treaty has caused harm on both sides of the border and how it can be improved.


“The treaty’s flood risk and hydropower operations have provided substantial benefits to people on both sides of the border,” said Jill Smail, the U.S. State Department’s lead negotiator in treaty talks. She praised a legacy of cooperation that has proved to be a model for the world in transboundary relations, but made it clear that the 54-year-old treaty is due for an update.


“So when we talk about negotiating the Columbia River Treaty regime, this includes a focus

on modernizing how we implement it,” she said, emphasizing the complex, multi-layered ways that the treaty has worked, and how a modernized version could work in the future.


Smail noted that she and other U.S.-Canadian negotiators have recently toured navigation operations in Vancouver, Wash., met with Pacific Northwest Tribes, and visited U.S. and Canadian dams and surrounding communities. Negotiations got underway on May 29 in Washington, D.C., and further negotiating rounds are scheduled for August in Nelson, B.C. and in Portland in October.


“Continued careful management of flood risk, ensuring a reliable power supply, and better addressing ecosystem functions” are the objectives of the U.S. negotiating team, Smail said. In addition to Smail, the team is made up of representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the State Department.


However, Smail and others attending the session at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s annual convention emphasized that flexibility — the ability to carry out adaptive management strategies in the midst of climate change, changing energy markets and future development throughout the region — is a goal on sides of the border.


Smail’s Canadian counterpart had similar comments. Sylvain Fabi is the chief negotiator and executive director of the Division of U.S. Transboundary Affairs of Global Affairs Canada.


“We expect the negotiations to take some time,as Jill said,” Fabi said. “These are complex issues, with many interests at stake, as we will hear this morning. And some of these interests will contradict each other. It doesn’t mean one’s wrong and the other is right. It’s just at one point, there’s a balancing effect.”


He said Canada share’s the U.S. priorities for flood control, and ensuring affordable, reliable hydropower, and he made it clear that Canada wants flexibility to manage issues that might arise over the next 50 years.


“But as we know, we’re in a different world now, this world has evolved,” Fabi said. “It has changed. So, as mentioned, we will focus also our work on ecosystems and look for opportunities to improve the environment and try to make sufficient use of adaptive management.”


The Canadian priorities, he said, are to modernize the treaty based on its original principle, avoid creating any negative impacts, and establishing sufficient flexibility to respond to future challenges.


Notably, Fabi said there is mutual interest in the potential for returning salmon to the Upper Columbia River, a vast area of salmon habitat that has been blocked since the construction of Grand Coulee Dam.


“Both countries have also agreed to continue discussions on studying the feasibility of salmon re-introduction to the Upper Columbia River,” Fabi said. “This is a theme, looking into whether and how this can be done.”


(See CBB, May 11, 2018, “Draft Assessment Looks At Habitat Above Grand Coulee To Support Salmon/Steelhead Reintroduction”


As Fabi predicted, people representing multiple interests sounded off.


Representatives from public utility districts argued that payments to Canada in exchange for water storage in Canadian reservoirs were no longer “balanced” under the current treaty regime. 


Andrew Munro, senior manager of the Grant County Public Utility District in Washington, cited estimates that the cost of the so-called Canadian Entitlement — an allotment of power generated in the U.S. in exchange for water storage in Canada — is 70 to 90 percent higher than the value of the storage benefits.


Munro and other contended that the Canadian Entitlement is excessive and needs to be corrected in a modernized Columbia River Treaty.


JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakima Nation Tribal Council, made his remarks in full traditional tanned-skins attire, with an ornate feathered head-dress worn by chiefs. He spoke about the exclusion of tribes as equal representatives on the negotiating team and about harms that have been incurred as a result of the 1964 treaty and previous pacts that cleared the way for a Columbia Basin hydroelectric system with devastating effects on salmon populations and indigenous people.


“We are taking steps in the modern, present day for the extinction of salmon,” Goudy said, adding that it is a continuation of detriments from the treaty and dams in the Columbia Basin.


“It is not a matter of discretion for the U.S. and Canada to exclude the Yakima Nation” from treaty negotiation, he added. “It is a matter of law and adherence to that law.”


All three county commissioners from Lincoln County in Montana’s northwest corner spoke, referring to the impacts of building Libby Dam — a so-called “treaty dam” — in the 1970s.


Commissioner Mark Peck said about 10 percent of the county’s taxable land base is now under the waters of Lake Koocanusa, partly because 78 percent of the county’s land mass is under state or federal management. The reservoir diverted a rail line away from the town of Eureka with huge impacts.


Farms and ranches were inundated after the dam was built, along with the entire town of Rexford west of Eureka.


“We lost many, many homes,” said Commissioner Jerry Bennett, adding that his grandparents lost their homes due to the dam.


Lincoln County’s ability to continue as a hotbed for logging, mining and ranching has diminished, and construction of the dam did not help.


Deb Kozak, mayor of the British Columbia town of Nelson, had a similar story about impacts of building other treaty dams, Keenleyside, Revelstoke and Mica.


“Dams built pursuant to the treaty have had devastating impacts. The Upper Columbia is a sacrifice zone: the price for flood protection downstream for Portland, Vancouver and other urban areas and commercial development of the floodplains of the lower river is largely paid by ecologic and economic harm upstream,” Osborn said.


“They were advertised as recreational opportunities, but they aren’t,” Kozak said, describing the dams as industrial water storage facilities that are often dry, with dusty flats instead of pleasant shorelines, due to downstream water demands.


According to a coalition of BC local governments, 90 percent of the length of the Columbia River is flooded in the province due to treaty dams. That includes about 266,000 acres of wetlands, riparian areas and forested ecosystems that were flooded.


A common theme for many speakers at the meeting was an insistence on elevating the importance of “ecosystem functions” as a priority equal to flood control and hydropower provisions in the treaty.


That was a primary position of Dr. John Osborn, a Spokane area physician and spokesman for a group called Ethics and Treaty Project.


To follow this process since 2013, see these stories:


-- CBB, April 27, 2018, “State Department Holds Town Hall On Negotiations With Canada For Modernized Columbia River Treaty”


-- 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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