Columbia River Treaty Review: American vs. Canadian Perspectives – A Look at the Current State of the Columbia River

After publishing our last blog about the CRT, I was contacted by two students from McGill University in Montreal, QC – Rami Khalil and Felicity Kuhn.  The students wrote a blog entry for a class project, and as a part of the project needed to have their blog published, which you can find below. Click here for the original, including references.

The Columbia River Treaty is often hailed as an outstanding international waters agreement, but many agree that it needs to be modernized to address factors that were not present or acknowledged at the time it was signed. We look at some information from the American perspective, after talking with John MacLean, Chief Administrative Officer for the Regional District of the Kootenay Boundary (CAO).

American Perspective

The American perspective argues for the same interests as Canada, with the exception of greater focus on the impact of drawdown on the river ecosystem as well as correct valuation of the Entitlement energy delivered to Canada annually. “Among stakeholder groups in the U.S., the hydropower industry has argued… that the Canadian Entitlement should be based on actual rather than potential hydropower production” (Brady, Li, & Yoder , 2015), the gap between which has grown. However, the paper proposes that the U.S. is currently in a weaker negotiating position than when the treaty was signed, because the Upper Columbia is now dammed, instead of when only the U.S. had made substantial hydropower investments. There have been efforts to correctly value the hydro payments made to BC, detailed in a report by George E. Penfold for the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Natural Gas.

The Americans have also expressed more concern for flood and drought conditions in the future than the Canadians. This may be connected to the significant impact of the river on the irrigation interests in Washington state via the Columbia Basin Project, who “have expressed dissatisfaction with operating reservoir levels for flood control” (Brady, Li, & Yoder , 2015).

The official recommendation from the US Entity supports addressing the local interest in better valuation of joint hydro operations, continuing the current level of flood protection, placing greater focus on ecosystem function, and providing greater flexibility to respond to climate change (Bonneville Power Administration & U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2013).

Interview (Canadian Perspective)

What are some of the ways an updated treaty would address these more erratic fluctuations in nature?

I think the dams can contain future fluctuations no problem, the climate models in use are based on the last 6 years, and require updating. Recent things like October being all rain, the snow shed completely gone in March, the major flooding in 2012, that’s not the norm. The regional advisory that I sit on is currently spending a lot of time on trying to update them, with a focus on keeping dam operation flexible for the sake of both power generation and the ecosystem (the salmon spawn in particular). The treaty is going need to have a certain level of flexibility and built in discussion and cooperation between the agencies; between the Core of Engineers, Bonneville Power, all of those folks.

Thoughts on the annual Entitlement Energy?

The Americans don’t want to pay, so one of the challenges we always face is putting an economic value on downstream benefits like flood control.



In conclusion the current state of the treaty has some weak points and is more dependent on the American side at this point to be amended. Based on the interview with John MacLean, in a new treaty the way the dams operate need to quickly respond to sudden alterations, have better valuation of downstream benefits, more accurate climate models, and lastly more concern for the basin ecosystem. He states that the province has been ready to begin talks about amending the treaty for about two years, but the Americans have just appointed a negotiator. The individual states don’t have autonomy and treaty negotiations are controlled by the federal government on their side, so negotiations are likely to be strongly affected by the recent election (2016). Whoever the secretary of state is has a large role in this and it’s going to be interesting. If things like the core of engineers and all that kind of stuff start getting defunded, it definitely makes things more difficult. I think there is going to be a hard reset this year for a few months at least to say, ‘okay we’re not even going to talk until the dust settles’.

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