Negotiations began in
1944 for a Columbia River Treaty between the United
States and Canada. The dual purpose of the Treaty was to
further develop and coordinate international
hydroelectric generation capacity and to establish
better flood control on the River.
The negotiations became
more urgent after severe flood conditions occurred in
the Columbia River Basin in 1948. The unprecedented high
water caused a levy to breach that resulted in a
disastrous flood that destroyed the city of Vanport. At
that time, Vanport was located southeast of Portland and
was the second largest city in Oregon.
The Treaty was finally
ratified by both nations in 1964.
As a result of the
treaty, four dams were constructed in Canada and Montana
to help control the timing of seasonal run-off water.
The nations have succeeded in their flood control
efforts by coordination of water storage and release. No
flooding has occurred on the mainstream Columbia since
the completion of those dams.
The Treaty was designed
to compensate Canada for the cost of the construction of
three dams, and subsequent flood control management,
with hydroelectric power. It provides that Canadians are
entitled to a significant portion of the hydroelectric
power that is generated in the United States when the
massive amount of floodwater storage is released
downstream from Canada.
The Treaty has no ending
date. However, the Treaty provides that, after fifty
years, either nation may serve ten-year notice that it
desires to either renegotiate or end the Treaty. Next
year is the first year for the countries to potentially
give such notice.
Both Canada and the
United States are actively involved in discussions of
what a new Treaty might look like. The sovereign
entities, including recognized Tribes in both countries,
have been advancing visions of what a new and improved
Treaty might look like. However, neither the United
States nor Canada has officially stated its intent to
change the Treaty.
However, the United
States entity released a draft recommendation for the
framework of an amended Treaty last week. Their agenda
proposes to maintain the Treaty’s hydroelectric and
flood control functions, but to add ecosystem
restoration as a third and equal purpose. The proposed
ecosystem development appears to be focused on the
restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin.
Advocates claim that
Chinook salmon runs have fallen about 90 percent from an
estimated average of 17 million in 1855 to a counted 1.7
million in 2010. However, the advocates are unable to
explain two salient data omissions needed to support
First, to our knowledge
no one was counting fish in the late 1800’s and early
1900’s. No empirical evidence exists to support the
claims that 17 million Chinook salmon ever ran up the
Columbia. The claim that a 90 percent reduction has
occurred in Chinook salmon runs appears to have no
Further, the advocates
allege that the decline in fish numbers was steady and
precipitous since 1855.Their graphs clearly show that
Chinook salmon numbers reached their lowest numbers in
Grand Coulee Dam was the
first and only dam constructed on the main stream
Columbia at that time. The advocates have no clear
explanation as to why the salmon numbers plummeted more
than 90 percent BEFORE the main stream dams were
constructed. Advocates claims alleging that draconian
losses in salmon runs may have been caused by
overfishing and habitat degradation, through logging and
farming activities, also lack meaningful data.
It is apparent from
visual and fishing records that River salmon runs did
suffer significant reductions since the turn of the
century. It is also apparent that little reproducible
data exists to explain why virtually all of those losses
occurred before 1940. The fact of the matter is that the
fish biologists simply do not know.
An obvious corollary
exists on the Klamath River. The PacifiCorp owned
hydroelectric dams are widely blamed for reduced Chinook
salmon runs on the Klamath River since the turn of the
century. Advocates have long stated that the dams must
come out in order to reestablish previous salmon
numbers. Yet 2012 saw one of the largest, if not the
largest Chinook salmon run ever recorded on the Klamath
River. This year, salmon numbers are shaping up to
surpass that record. The dams are still in the River and
the water quality in the River has not changed. Fish
biologists have no meaningful explanation for these
massive Chinook salmon runs other than suggestions of
“better” ocean conditions.
Administration ratepayers already pay more than $1
billion per year for Columbia River ecosystem management
that is primarily for the benefit of salmon. In fact,
according to BPA officials, well more than 40 percent of
BPA’s wholesale charges are attributable to the cost of
complying with environmental ecosystem regulations.
About 43 percent of all
electricity used in Oregon is generated by BPA. Utility
ratepayers in Washington use even more BPA power. So it
is the Northwest utility ratepayers who are paying
virtually all of this environmental ecosystem tax on
That is just one of many
reasons why I am very skeptical of the draft
recommendation to establish further ecosystem
restoration as a third and equal criteria to hydropower
generation and flood control.
Chinook salmon counts
have more than doubled on the River since 1940. Further,
record runs have been experienced during the last couple
of years. Biologists have no empirical data explaining
why these recent massive runs have occurred, other than
vague and undocumented suggestions of “better” ocean
Further investments in
habitat restoration on the River may be expected to be
very expensive and are equally likely to produce little
return on investment for ratepayers. Removal of the four
Lower Snake River dams is one probable target for the
restoration advocates that would significantly reduce
power generation capacity and simply eliminate shipping
from the port of Lewiston, Idaho. Other changes being
considered in River flow management would also greatly
increase costs to utility ratepayers.
It would seem to me
that, in any Treaty revision, more consideration should
be given to the maintenance of the River’s incredible
freight shipping capacity. That capacity has been
developed on the Columbia River as the direct result of
dam construction and Canadian flood control.
Furthermore, much more consideration must be given to
the economic importance of the irrigation of tens of
thousands of acres of fertile cropland that is only made
possible by the dams.
The Council of State
Governments Committee on Columbia River Governance will
meet in Boardman next month. I have the privilege of
chairing that committee this year. Our committee has
shaped the entire agenda of that meeting around the
ECONOMIC outcomes of any potential changes to the
Columbia River Treaty.
hydropower, shipping, irrigation, recreation and
fisheries are primary economic engines for the Northwest
economy. We must strongly resist any changes in the
Treaty that will cause any of those engines to misfire.
Please remember, if we do
not stand up for rural Oregon no one will.