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COLUMBIA RIVER TREATY Power play among friends

U.S., Canada renegotiate pact that averts Portland flooding


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Bonneville Dam is a major driver of the Northwest economy and a huge obstacle for endangered fish. Dams on the Columbia could be asked to play different roles as the U.S. and Canada reconsider the treaty that regulates the river system. For nearly half a century, the United States has relied on Canada to hold back the raging waters of the Columbia River to avoid catastrophes like the 1948 Vanport Flood, which inundated Oregon’s second-largest city and erased it from the map.

In exchange, the U.S. sends free hydropower to Canada that’s produced downstream at Columbia River dams.

Now the landmark Columbia River Treaty that secured that tradeoff in 1964 is up for review, and some say it’s a bad deal financially for the United States.

Delicate treaty negotiations will shape how the entire Columbia River system is managed for decades — and the stakes are huge for the Portland area. We’re the largest populated area along the Columbia and at great risk for flooding. Other potential impacts include:

• The plight of endangered Columbia River salmon and steelhead

• Who reaps the benefits of hydropower, which pays for energy conservation and wildlife habitat improvements and lowers the cost of living and doing business in the Northwest

• The plight of commercial, tribal and recreational fishing on the Columbia and its tributaries

• Navigability of the river, a vital trade artery

• Irrigation for Northwest farmers

Oh, and all these factors must be considered while the region braces for climate change and all its unpredictable impacts.

At this stage of the multiyear treaty renegotiation process, scientists and officials at two Portland agencies are taking the lead for the U.S.: the district office of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration. The Army Corps built and operates the Columbia River dams and maintains a large operation downtown. BPA, based in the Lloyd District, sells power from the dams and is the largest force in the Northwest energy market.

So far, the U.S. side sounds like it’s trying to drive a tough bargain, or prepare the ground to terminate most of the treaty.

“We believe that we are significantly overpaying” for benefits provided by the treaty, says Mike Hansen, BPA spokesman. “When we say significantly, we mean significantly.”

It hasn't always been that way.

For the first 30 years after the treaty went into effect, the U.S. got the better end of the bargain, concedes Matthew Rea, an Army Corps program manager for the treaty review. The Canadians built multiple dams in British Columbia and created large reservoirs behind those dams to store water. About 35 percent of the Columbia’s water flowing on the U.S. side originates north of the border, especially from melting snow in the Canadian Rockies, Rea says. During high-water periods, it’s closer to 50 percent.

Under the treaty, Canadians agree to release water behind those dams in coordination with the Army Corps and BPA, to control flooding and maximize hydropower production. The Army Corps estimates the Canadian dams prevented more than $200 million in flooding damages in each of the high-water years of 1972, 1974 and 1997, says agency spokeswoman Amy Echols.

U.S. payments helped Canadians build those dams. Clearing land for the reservoirs forced the relocation of more than 1,300 residents, still a sore point among British Columbia residents.

But in recent decades the tables have turned, Rea says, and Canada is getting the better part of the deal.

by: COURTESY OF ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS  - A 75-ton granite Treaty Tower atop Libby Dam in Montana celebrates U.S.-Canadian cooperation in managing the Columbia River to benefit both nations. The 1964 treaty is under review, and  could be renegotiated or terminated.

Money loser for U.S.?

The U.S. pegs the current value of the hydropower supplied from Northwest dams, known as the Canadian Entitlement, at $250 million to $300 million a year, Hansen says.

That’s money forfeited by the BPA — which sells low-cost hydropower to 140 Northwest utilities — and Public Utility Districts in Washington’s Grant, Chelan and Douglas counties. The three PUDs forfeit 27 percent of the Canadian Entitlement, a major economic flashpoint in those rural communities.

Under the treaty, the two sides must reach a new agreement by 2014 or agree to terminate most terms. There’d be a 10-year grace period, allowing time to build new reservoirs, levees or other facilities once a decision to terminate the treaty is made.

“The Canadians don’t want to terminate the treaty” and they’ve been pretty clear about that, Rea says.

But the U.S. is sending signals it might want to terminate the treaty, which was hailed at the time as a model of international cooperation.

Initial estimates peg the value of the treaty to the U.S. at less than half the current value of the Canadian Entitlement, Hansen says. That would mean the deal, if extended under current terms, would cost the region several billion dollars in coming decades.

Terminating the treaty would force the U.S. to find new ways to tame Columbia waters, especially during spring and summer snow melts in the Canadian Rockies. That may require bolstering levees along the Columbia River in North and Northeast Portland, near where the Vanport Flood occurred. And it means finding ways to control the river flow to optimize hydropower production and fish habitat.

When the Columbia River Treaty was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, there was no such thing as the Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973.

“Back in ’64, it was mainly an agreement on power and flood control, and the ecosystem did not play as large a role,” says Bruce Suzumoto, assistant regional administrator for the hydro division of NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency overseeing the recovery of endangered Columbia River salmon and steelhead.

“There’s a great deal of interest in enhancing the ecosystem function in the agreement,” says Suzumoto. That means assuring a steady flow of water to help migrating fish, especially in summer months, and using released water to keep the river cooler for endangered salmon and steelhead, he says.

But there are debates on how far we can go to protect the ecosystem and how much money we should spend, Suzumoto says.

Flooding fears

The city of Portland is closely following the treaty negotiations, and sent a letter outlining its concerns. In a nutshell, those are flooding, endangered species, and coping with climate change, says Ann Beier, director of the city’s Office of Healthy Working Rivers.

“The flood risks apply mainly to properties along the Columbia,” Beier says.

The main bulwark holding back Columbia flood waters there is a series of sandy levees maintained by Multnomah County Drainage District, a small agency funded by nearby property owners. Marine Drive is built atop the main levee.

“If they increase the flows, levees would have to be strengthened,” says the district engineer Byron Woltersdorf. Levees may need to be raised to withstand higher levels of the Columbia, or buttressed to endure longer periods of high water, as water seeps through the levees over time.

The treaty also affects the Willamette River, Rea notes, pointing out the windows of the Army Corps’ downtown offices to the river below. The Willamette flows into the Columbia north of downtown, and the Columbia can serve as a dam when its waters run high.

“You have so much flow going down the Columbia that the flow from the Willamette can’t enter,” Beier explains. That was one of the factors when the Willamette flooded in 1996 and threatened downtown.

Fortunately, the Columbia River peaks in May and June, as the Canadian Rockies snow melts, while the Willamette, more sensitive to rainfall and snowmelt further south, tends to peak from December to February.

The Army Corps and BPA hope to deliver a recommendation on treaty renewal by this fall. Framing a unified U.S. position is no simple matter, because it affects multiple states, nine federal agencies, 15 Native American tribes, thousands of businesses and millions of residents. Then U.S. diplomats from the State Department must weigh other binational issues as they negotiate with their Canadian counterparts.