Aging Columbia River Treaty with Canada is out of date. Here’s what’s at stake

The United States and Canada will intensify their work over the coming months toward a modernized Columbia River Treaty.

U.S. President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Friday as Biden visited Canada.

“We will focus on flood risk management, power generation and environmental benefits that are shared equitably by both countries and the Indigenous peoples and tribal nations, communities and stakeholders in this watershed,” they said in a joint statement.

The river is an important resource shared by both nations and “the watershed requires our attention and prompt coordination,” they said.

Biden had been urged by the entire Pacific Northwest Congressional delegation before his visit to Ottawa on Thursday and Friday to prioritize the modernization of the treaty in discussions with Trudeau.

The visit was Biden’s first to Canada since becoming president.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., had the lead signature on a letter sent this week to the president saying that treaty negotiations need to be concluded to avoid significant and widespread impacts to the nation.

“Without an agreement, both countries will have to prepare for unwelcome volatility and strains on Columbia River Basin operations, including increased flood risks and economic uncertainty in the United States,” the letter said.

The treaty was established in 1964 to provide the framework for the United States and Canada to invest in water storage capabilities in the Columbia River Basin and to increase coordination of flood control and electric generation to benefit both countries.

Dams in the Columbia River Basin are shown, including the Columbia River Treaty dams.
Dams in the Columbia River Basin are shown, including the Columbia River Treaty dams.

The Canadian water management also helps the United States provide irrigation water and river navigation.

In return, Northwest electricity users pay a “Canadian Entitlement,” which provides up to $350 million a year in electrical power to Canada.

The flood control portion of the treaty expires in September 2024.

Without modernization, the United States will enter into “called-upon” flood control operations, which will require the United States to request flood control as needed from Canada on the U.S. side of the Columbia River Basin.

In addition, either country can unilaterally terminate the agreement provided they give 10 years notice.

Fifteen rounds of negotiations on the treaty have been held since 2018, with residents of both nations calling for restored balance in the treaty.

The Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a regional recommendation that calls for the historic focus of power generation and flood control to be expanded to include ecosystem goals, such as stream flows with appropriate timing, quantity and water quality for salmon.

The recommendation also called for reconsideration of the Canadian Entitlement, which has been higher than anticipated by the United States when the treaty was signed.

But some in Canada have argued that the Canadian Entitlement now does not cover benefits beyond hydropower, including irrigation, navigation and recreation.