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Negotiations on Columbia River Treaty to Start in 2018

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Bonneville Dam is one of many in the Columbia River basin. (Colleen Benelli/Flickr)
Bonneville Dam is one of many in the Columbia River basin. (Colleen Benelli/Flickr)
 By Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR - Producer, Contact
December 29, 2017

PORTLAND, Ore. – Columbia River Treaty negotiations between the United States and Canada are set to begin in 2018, and advocates for the environment say the river's health should be the focus of talks.

Conversation, fishing and faith-based groups, as well as tribes in the Columbia River basin, want the treaty to expand its purpose from simply maintaining hydropower production and flood-risk management. They say negotiators should modernize the treaty and include a third purpose: ecosystem function, which would help salmon and other species.

Greg Haller is conservation director for the environmental group Pacific Rivers.

"The Columbia River Treaty is often hailed as a model for transboundary management of a river, and we could actually, truly make the treaty a model for transboundary river management by including ecosystem function as a primary purpose," he explains.

Conservation groups say focusing on ecosystem function would mean helping the river flow more naturally.

The Treaty was originally ratified in 1964 to reduce the flood risk in Portland and create more hydropower capacity. Salmon returns continue to drop in the river basin.

Jim Heffernan, a policy analyst for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, says he's encouraged that the U.S.' top negotiator is following regional recommendations on the treaty.

Tribes weren't consulted when the treaty was first negotiated and their resources on the river have been hurt since, but they're excited that the ecosystem could become a focus. Heffernan says this term has a deep meaning for tribes.

"What they mean by that is not just ecosystem services - things that people take from the river system," he says. "They view the salmon, the sturgeon, the bull trout, the wildlife that depend upon the rivers, as gifts given to them that they have an obligation and responsibility to take care of for future generations."

According to Haller, utilities such as Bonneville Power say they can't afford to do more for salmon. His and other conservation groups believe the opposite is true.

"We think by doing more for salmon, it will actually produce economic, social and cultural benefits that outweigh the cost that may be incurred through potentially higher rates," he adds.

Haller says Pacific Rivers represents millions of ratepayers in the basin who want their hydropower produced in a way that has the least amount of harm to salmon and other species. He also notes the Northwest is becoming less reliant on hydropower as the region's energy market diversifies.

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