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Originally published Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 3:59 PM

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Columbia River Treaty: Maintain the goodwill that has worked

Do not discount the practical and financial benefits of a close working relationship with Canada via the Columbia River Treaty.

Times editorial columnist

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A busy week for flag waving. The Fourth of July on Thursday, and Canada Day on Monday.

My favorite factoid for the season comes from a new book by historian Joseph J. Ellis. “Revolutionary Summer” is a fascinating account of events from roughly May to October of 1776.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence had 85 revisions or deletions to the text by his colleagues before it was adopted in its cherished form.

Canada’s independence from England is dotted with asterisks for the uninitiated. It dates to a constitutional act in 1867, and became a holiday in 1879, except that Canada and England were tied together until 1982. The flag did change in 1965.

In that spirit of editing and interpretation, each side of the U.S.-Canadian border is parsing out the past, and anticipating the future of the Columbia River Treaty.

Last week the two sides issued preliminary papers, the kind stamped “DRAFT” in monster letters. They write about updating a treaty that focused entirely on flood control and power generation.

They are analyzing the other party’s intentions for treaty changes after 2024. The 1964 treaty runs for 60 years, and nothing has to end, but revisions require 10 years’ notice, so 2014 looms large.

Less than a decade after the treaty was in effect, the U.S. Endangered Species Act emerged to foreshadow future environmental, ecosystem and climate issues.

How they are acknowledged and included in a revised treaty will drive negotiations. Final recommendations are expected by the end of the year, and they will circulate from the west toward Ottawa and Washington, D.C.

For now, Canada means the province of British Columbia. The U.S. means a consortium of four states, 11 federal agencies, 15 Native American tribes and other stakeholders.

The U.S. makes clear in its June 27 report that modern Columbia River Treaty operations should not interfere with other opportunities to restore fish passage. Canada needs to understand, the U.S. asserts, that responsibility for the Columbia River ecosystem is a shared operation.

The U.S. wants to assure common understanding of the revised methods and procedures of post-2024 protocols for flood control. Keep the sand bags handy.

Bottom line is the bottom line. The U.S. wants to rework the formula for the allotment of power benefits. The Canadian entitlement is viewed as outdated, unrealistic and too expensive to continue.

The B.C. government perspective encourages the U.S. to take a deep breath and tally all the benefits it receives — not only from successful flood control, and steady, predictable power generation, but also gains to navigation, water supply and recreation.

The only downstream benefit for British Columbia, the argument goes, is the additional power production potential. Without the so-called entitlement, why bother?

B.C.’s June 25 paper makes a credible case that the benefit of coordination is much broader for the U.S. than for Canada.

The dollar value of purposeful collaboration should not be discounted. I have this scary sense that a half century of successful flood control is inspiring a glib U.S. attitude about its capacity to manage changing conditions on the fly.

Our governments are too prone to cheap out on infrastructure improvements and maintenance. Call it the Skagit River bridge syndrome.

Do not compromise cooperation that has managed reservoirs, maintained power in cold spells, protected downstream cities and boosted power production.

Nurture the goodwill of a helpful neighbor. Crunch the numbers, but be honest about the savings and efficiencies of an effective working relationship.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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