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Lead U.S. Negotiators For New Columbia River Treaty Hold Portland Town Hall
Posted on Friday, September 14, 2018 (PST)

Flood control, ecosystem management, salmon reintroduction and inclusion of tribes directly in the negotiating process were concerns raised by local participants at a town hall on what modernizing the Columbia River Treaty should look like.


The U.S. government’s lead negotiators for Columbia River Treaty heard from about 20 people testifying at the town hall, the evening of Sept. 6 at the Bonneville Power Administration’s Rates Hearing Room.


Nearly all of those who testified between 5:30 and 7 pm – more than half a dozen were not allowed to speak after the 7 pm deadline – proposed giving Northwest treaty tribes a seat at the table.


“The U.S. and Canada should not be the only nations in this negotiation,” said Whitman College (Walla Walla) professor Stu Thane. “There is a lack of direct representation with the tribes. Consultation is not the same as direct representation.”


Jill Smail, lead negotiator for the State Department, said the tribes were being consulted and, in fact, the negotiation team had met with tribes the afternoon prior to the town hall (no tribal members testified at the town hall).


In her opening prepared statement, she said “we value the Tribes’ expertise and experience and are working with them to develop a mechanism for meaningful engagement throughout the negotiations.”


However, as to direct involvement in the negotiations, she said “our judgement in terms of our foreign policy approach to Canada is to have a small negotiating team.”


“As the lead foreign affairs agency for the U.S. government, the Department of State has primary responsibility regarding negotiating and concluding international agreements and treaties on issues ranging from civil aviation to nuclear weapons to transboundary waters,” Smail said in her opening remarks (


U.S. negotiators present in Portland, included Smail, Kieron Connolly, vice president of generation at the Bonneville Power Administration, David Ponganis, director of programs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lorri Gray, Northwest Regional Director for the Bureau of Reclamation (Department of Interior) and Michael Tehan, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Office’s Inter-Columbia Basin office.


As the U.S. and Canada have been preparing for the negotiations, each had the option to abandon the treaty with a 10-year notice, but neither country chose that route and instead pursued a path to renegotiate a modernized treaty. Together, they developed a recommendation December 13, 2013 (see,%2013%20DEC%202013.pdf). The tribes and first nations, as well as states, did participate directly in that work. That was the first step towards formal negotiations that got underway this year.


The first negotiating sessions between the two countries were in Washington D.C in May and in Nelson, British Columbia in August. A third negotiating session is scheduled for Portland October 17 and 18.


The Portland town hall, the second one held by the negotiating team, attracted more than 100 people. The first was in Spokane in April and a third will likely be held in January at an as yet specified location.


In her opening remarks, Smail said the negotiators’ key objectives of a modernized treaty include management of flood risk, ensuring reliable and economical power in the region and improving the ecosystem to protect fish and wildlife.


She went on to say that “discussion with Canada are focused on water flowing across the border,” specifically from the Canadian treaty dams of Keenleyside (also known as Arrow), Duncan and Mica, as well as Libby Dam in the U.S., all collectively known as the treaty projects.


The 1948 Vanport Flood in North Portland was the catalyst for the initial treaty focused on flood control and hydropower production, although it took nearly 20 years. The treaty was ratified in 1964. Some 18,000 people lost their homes and 15 people died in the flood when a dike broke as the Columbia River flooded. “We saw that we urgently needed to address flooding and prevent the loss of life and property as the region developed,” Smail said.


Flood control is still a hot topic, as it was at the Portland town hall.


Although he also was concerned about “ecosystem resilience” and the inclusion of tribes into negotiations, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, along with others from Northwest ports, irrigation districts, Portland-area diking districts, said that a changed treaty could drastically impact flood risk and the economy in the high density corridor around Portland and Vancouver.


Canada now provides “assured” flood control, but if the treaty were to lapse, flood control would revert to a type in which the U.S. would call upon Canada to hold water in British Columbia reservoirs to control potential flooding downstream only when it needs it. Under the current treaty that expires in 2024, the U.S. has paid for “assured” flood control over the past 54 years.


Smail, in her opening remarks, said that “After 2024, the Treaty’s flood risk management provisions change to a less defined approach in terms of how we work together and compensate Canada for its role in managing water that flows across the border. By modernizing the Columbia River Treaty regime we seek continued, careful management of flood risk. We also want to ensure a reliable and economical power supply and improve ecosystem benefits.


“On flood risk management, the Northwest is a pillar of the U.S. economy and millions of people depend on flood risk management to protect their lives, property, and businesses,” Smail continued.


The “current practice of assured storage has kept us dry for 70 years,” said Mary Ellen Kinkaid of the Columbia Drainage District in Portland, who was also concerned about dikes along the river that keep the river within its banks.


Jim McKenna, Portland Harbor policy analyst, representing the state of Oregon along with former Northwest Power and Conservation Council member Bill Bradbury, said that the new treaty needs to provide mechanisms for out-of-stream uses, ecosystem functions, and it should account for “man-made climate change” as well as recognize the cultural significance of Native Americans.


With Oregon receiving 40 percent of its power needs from the Columbia River system, “it’s critical that any modifications to the treaty assures Oregon affordable clean power,” Bradbury said.


Throughout the Columbia River basin, many tribes are involved with reintroducing anadromous fish into the blocked reaches of tributaries and the mainstem. One reintroduction proposal is upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams on the mainstem Columbia River where the Spokane Tribe and the Colville Confederated Tribes are studying its feasibility.


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


With some 1,160 miles of tributary habitat identified by the tribes, reintroduction into the area that has been blocked to anadromous passage since the 1930s becomes a transboundary issue and so to proceed would need to be under a negotiated agreement with Canada.


Smail assured the crowded room that fish reintroduction “will be discussed with Canada at some point in the negotiations.”


“That’s a technically difficult issue and we’re trying to figure out what that looks like” the bureau’s Gray said. “But, we’re very much listening.”


“This is a very exciting time to be working on the Treaty. People here in the Northwest have anticipated and planned for this for many years,” Smail said. “At the Department of State, we are eager to move forward to help define how Americans and Canadians – including Tribes in the United States and First Nations in Canada – will continue to mutually benefit from the Treaty.”


Comments to the negotiating team can be sent by email to


To follow this process since 2013, see these stories:


--CBB, July 27, 2018, “Columbia River Treaty Negotiators Hear Views In Spokane Forum From Both Sides Of Border,”


-- 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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