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COLUMN: Local Voices Crucial to Resetting Outdated Columbia River Treaty

December 16, 2019
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

In 1964, the United States and Canada ratified the Columbia River Treaty to increase coordination between our countries on power generation and flood control issues, along with critical support of irrigation, navigation, and ecosystem habitat needs. While the treaty has provided a useful framework for these needs, there are severe distortions that have greatly—and unfairly—burdened Americans living in the greater Northwest region.

With a 60-year term, the earliest the treaty could have been terminated was 2024.  In anticipation of the end of this term—and in recognition of the serious imbalances that have developed—the U.S. conducted a multi-year, collaborative consultation with the Pacific Northwest states, federally-recognized tribes, and a diverse array of stakeholders to develop a formal guide for any potential renegotiations.

In August of 2016, I joined five U.S. Senators and 16 colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in sending a letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry urging the U.S. Department of State to stop dragging its feet on pushing forward with negotiations. Unfortunately, there was no progress demonstrated during the Obama Administration.

Fortunately, the Trump Administration got the ball rolling on formal renegotiations in May of 2018. The U.S. Department of State is now leading these negotiations with Canada to modernize the treaty regime, an undertaking that has enormous impacts on jobs, hydropower, water storage, flood control, and the environment—on both sides of the border.

Canada benefits a great deal from the power generated by our mighty hydroelectric dams. Currently, that power reflects a $158 million annual payment from the U.S. to Canada; in the past, that cost has even reached the $250-$350 million range. Douglas County Public Utility District (PUD) recently calculated this to be a cost of $4 million for Benton and Franklin PUD’s, $8 million for Douglas PUD, and $22 million for Grant PUD. Today, for example, that is $500 per Douglas PUD customer, per year.

This is a staggering figure and a sobering depiction of why this treaty must be reset to a mutually-beneficial deal, as originally intended.

As part of the ongoing renegotiation effort, the State Department has been holding public town halls across the Pacific Northwest to provide updates on the process. Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to Jill Smail, Chief U.S. Negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty, requesting that the next session of the town hall series be held in Tri-Cities so the voices of the Columbia Basin could be heard on this important matter.

I am grateful Ms. Smail and the State Department accepted my invitation and conducted a town hall in Richland this week. It is crucial that stories like those of our local public utility districts and the burdens placed on the backs of ratepayers—particularly those in the 4th Congressional District—be heard by federal officials working to modernize this lopsided deal.

The Columbia River Treaty must be renegotiated in 2020 to ensure we have an updated and equitable treaty for the 21st Century.  I will continue to work with the State Department and the Trump Administration to get this job done and level the playing field on this important treaty with our neighbor to the north.