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COLUMN: Roll On, Columbia River Treaty Negotiations

August 29, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

Anyone who has spent time in Central Washington knows the Columbia River is the defining natural feature of our region. As the largest river in the Western Hemisphere that flows into the Pacific Ocean, it has long guided the way of life for people living in the Pacific Northwest. From water storage and transportation to recreation, flood control, energy production, and wildlife habitat, our management of the Columbia River will continue to determine the economic future of our region. We share this magnificent resource with our neighbor to the north, which is why updating the treaty between the U.S. and Canada to govern the Columbia should be a top priority for the federal government. Unfortunately, instead of expediting this important matter, this Administration has been dragging its feet on the necessary review process for commencing Columbia River Treaty (CRT) negotiations.

The CRT was implemented in 1964 to manage electricity generation and flood control, and it has not been updated since then, despite significant developments in the intervening five decades. One example of the many major provisions that require modernization is the “Canadian Entitlement.” The original treaty now requires U.S. ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest to provide an entitlement of $250 to $350 million for hydroelectric power to Canada. The purpose of the Entitlement was to compensate Canada for flood control and storage measures, though it is based on severely outdated Treaty assumptions. The Canadian Entitlement needs to be revisited and rebalanced in a way that is fair for ratepayers and electricity consumers in the U.S.

Renegotiating the CRT is important for the Northwest, but why the rush? The bipartisan, bicameral congressional effort to nudge the Administration into action began in 2014 because that is when the clock started ticking on the life of this treaty. On September 16, 2024, with ten years notice, either Canada or the U.S. can terminate most of the treaty’s provisions. We are already well into the ten-year timeframe when proposed modifications must be legally noticed. Since I have been in Congress, I have joined my congressional colleagues in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana on numerous occasions to urge the Administration and the lead agency for negotiations, the U.S. Department of State, to complete the necessary review process and begin treaty negotiations immediately. While a new lead U.S. negotiator was finally appointed last fall, there has still been very little progress.

Time is running out to modernize the outdated treaty that governs the 1,200-mile long Columbia and impacts millions of Americans in the Pacific Northwest. There is much at stake, and this is a complex matter, but I will continue to apply pressure on this Administration to make modernization a priority this year.