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Originally published March 13, 2014 at 4:36 PM | Page modified March 14, 2014 at 9:27 AM

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Weigh all the benefits of the Columbia River Treaty

British Columbia is out first with the principles that will shape its Columbia River Treaty negotiations. A U.S. position is expected this summer.


Times editorial columnist

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The Columbia River Treaty is a successful, long-running agreement regarding one of the most contentious topics on the planet: water.

On Thursday, the province of British Columbia released its 14-point position for updating a transboundary water treaty that has worked since 1964.

The treaty has no expiration date, but operational elements of a basic feature of the treaty — flood control — expire in 2024. That working relationship must be renewed or be reconfigured.

On the most fundamental level, either side must provide 10 years’ lead time for treaty termination. So 2014 opens the door to update the treaty or, theoretically, wave goodbye.

Work on the document released Thursday was led by Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of the Columbia River Treaty Review, in the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines. It represents Canada’s position. Ottawa ceded control to British Columbia, with B.C.’s authority over natural resources.

This summer, the U.S. State Department is expected to release a U.S. position shaped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration. The agencies oversaw a review that involved four states, 11 federal agencies and 15 Native American tribes and other stakeholders.

A primary U.S. concern for revision is the Canadian Entitlement — half of the power produced. That’s a formulation Northwest utilities argue is outdated, with no basis in economic reality.

They are particularly upset B.C.’s share is not adjusted for diminished downstream benefits or the expense of subsequent U.S. environmental legislation imposed on the hydro system, and borne by regional ratepayers.

The B.C. government, which sells its share and puts the proceeds in the provincial treasury, says to look at the bigger picture. In interviews, Eichenberger, an engineer, is quick to tally all of the benefits that accrue south of the border beyond the certainty of hydropower production and flood control.

The evidence-based arguments look at five decades of predictability and adjustments for water supply, irrigation, recreation and navigation.

Improvements to all of the above, plus ecosystem and fisheries enhancements sought by both sides, can be achieved with rational negotiations. Perhaps.

A consortium of U.S. utilities has laid down negotiating markers that call for notification of termination if its principles are not met.

The scariest part of what lies ahead is a switch from the demonstrated success of current flood-control protocols to a vague muddle, known as “Called Upon Flood Control.”

The U.S. would manage any deluge with increased use of U.S. reservoirs, higher river volumes and a glib acceptance of more risk.

Sounds reassuring doesn’t it? I cannot wait to hear the reaction to the feds using the eight reservoirs that existing laws put into play. What will a new role in flood control do for local water supply, irrigation, recreation and aesthetics?

What will more water and faster currents mean for Columbia River navigation, sedimentation in river channels, travel times and docking?

University of Idaho law professor Barbara Cosens is a specialist in water law, law and science, and dispute resolution. She and University of Calgary law professor Nigel Bankes have jointly written on the future of the treaty.

In a phone call Tuesday, Cosens said she understands the push to modernize the treaty, and the financial frustrations created by congressional choices on ESA funding.

Five decades ago, Cosens explained, the assumption was hydropower would evolve into peaking power trumped by reliance on thermal power — nukes. Whoops. Other contemporary realities include vastly different public processes and environmental values.

Going into negotiations, treaty tensions abound. For example, Cosens said Canada expects references to U.S. use of reservoirs for flood control to mean all reservoirs. The U.S. identifies a select few.

Under the new definition of flood control, Cosens said there is no agreement on the circumstances when the U.S. can call upon Canada for help.

A solid, working relationship between the U.S. and Canada has generated power, provided predictable supplies of water and provided a half-century of flood control.

The U.S. cannot afford to pinch pennies with a valued ally. Examine the financial deal, but do not jeopardize an existing flood-control arrangement that works.

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



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