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U.S. lawmakers call for termination of parts of Columbia River Treaty

The Duncan Dam, located at the north end of Kootenay Lake, was one of the dams constructed as part of the Columbia River Treaty. — Submitted

Lawmakers south of the border are sounding alarm bells with respect to the Columbia River Treaty.

Last week, Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Kurt Schrader (D-OR), and Greg Walden (R-OR) introduced a resolution to encourage the Trump Administration to immediately issue a notice of intent to terminate the commercial and power coordination provisions of the Columbia River Treaty.  

The House Representatives said the United States has been unfairly burdened by the outdated CRT, and the terminations notice would stop the weather transfer by the USA to Canada.

“The existing Treaty punishes Northwest electric ratepayers, forcing them to pay for benefits far in excess to the value provided to the United States,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers said.

"With good faith negotiations at a standstill, we urge President Trump to take a strong stance and issue the notice of intent to terminate the power coordination provisions of the Treaty.”

Katrine Conroy, Minister Responsible for the Columbia River Treaty said in an emailed statement that Canadian negotiators are aware of the drafted resolution by the US lawmakers.

However, before the treaty can be terminated, or in this case specific parts of the agreement — commercial and power coordination provisions — a 10-year termination notice must be issued.

And Conroy said no termination notice has been received.

“Should one be issued, Canada, in collaboration with B.C. and Indigenous Nations, would determine next steps,” Conroy explained.

“According to the terms of the Columbia River Treaty, if either party gives notice of termination, the Treaty remains in force for another 10 years.”

Conroy said negotiators for Canada and the U.S. have been working together to develop options to modernize the Columbia River Treaty since early 2018.

These improvements would ensure both countries benefit from flood control and power generation, while also looking to implement ecosystem improvements in the Columbia Basin.

“B.C. and Canada have been committed to strengthening the treaty for the benefit of both countries,” Conroy said.

“If the United States were to give a 10-year notice of termination, Canada, B.C. and Columbia Basin Indigenous Nations would continue to work together, to consider options regarding the future of the treaty.”

The map shows the Columbia River Basin, including the three dams — Duncan, Mica and Hugh Keenlyside — in BC constructed as a result of the Columbia River Treaty. — Image courtesy BC Government

Eileen Pearkes, who has written a book exploring the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty — A River Captured — said it appears the U.S. lawmakers want to terminate only one part of the treaty.

Pearkes said the resolution focuses on the part the CRT that entitles Canada to half the downstream benefits for electricity production, in return for Canada's water storage. 

“With hydro electricity rates falling in the West due to development of renewable (wind/solar), the operators of the U.S. dams don't want to give Canada its share,” Pearkes said.

“They want to keep other parts of the treaty that have to do with the timing of water flowing south out of our reservoirs in dry summer months, and water being held back to protect Portland and the Tri-Cities from spring flooding.”

Pearkes, who has been closely following negotiations, said through an appropriate diplomatic process the U.S. and Canada have indicated both countries do not want to terminate the treaty.

“Negotiations have slowed lately,” Pearkes said.

“Some people close to the process have indicated that the slow-down is related to a combination of COVID-19, and the fact that the two countries have finished the pleasant, "getting to know each other" phase and have now entered a tougher set of discussions.”

Pearkes said the congressional resolution indicates that those interested in limiting or eliminating Canada's share of treaty electricity are getting frustrated and want to see action.

Conroy said Canada and B.C. have obligations and have incurred and continue to incur significant impacts under the current treaty and in return receive appropriate compensation.

“After September 2024, whether or not the treaty is terminated, planned flood-risk management ends,” Conroy said.

“Canada and B.C. would only provide basic ad hoc flood control, and only when the United States had first made effective use of, or fully drafted, its own flood-control facilities.”

In June, Conroy said Canada hosted the latest round of negotiations, through a virtual platform, and provided the U.S. with Canadian objectives for a renewed treaty in response to a recent U.S. proposal.

The U.S. is responsible for hosting the next round of negotiations.

However, no negotiations have been scheduled at this time.

About Columbia River Treaty

The Columbia River Treaty is a 1961 agreement between Canada and the United States on the development and operation of dams in the upper Columbia River basin for power and flood control benefits in both countries.

Four dams were constructed under this treaty: three in BC, Duncan Dam, Mica Dam and Hugh Keenleyside Dam and one south of the border in Montana — Libby Dam.

The treaty provided for the sharing with Canada of half of the downstream US power and flood benefits, and allows the operation of Treaty storage for other benefits.

See more about Columbia River Treaty.