The United States and Canada are about to begin formal negotiations to modernize the 1964 Columbia River Treaty. This 54-year-old treaty has done much good, but like every 50-year-old it could use some tuning up. Of utmost importance for Idaho is adding a third purpose – the health of the river – to the original treaty purposes of power production and flood management.
Six U.S. states and British Columbia share the Columbia Basin. Nearly all of Idaho is in it. 15% of the basin lies in Canada, but the Canadian side contributes up to 50% of the Columbia’s water. A modern Columbia River Treaty is particularly important for Idaho’s Panhandle. Some Panhandle rivers flow into Canada and then back out. Others connect Montana, Idaho and Washington just south of Canada.
Adding Ecosystem Function
In 2013, the four Northwest states, 15 Indian tribes, and federal dam agencies jointly ratified a regional recommendation to guide the renegotiation. Electric utilities, many river users, and conservation and fishing groups including ICL, also endorsed it. A key plank in the recommendation is that ecosystem function – meaning the health of the river – be added as a third treaty purpose, joining power production and flood management.
How Would Idaho Benefit?
Consider a list: Clean water. Salmon and trout. Public health. Cleaner energy. Livability and quality of life. Recreation. Wildlife. Resilience to hotter water and more erratic water conditions. Some justice for Idaho’s Native Americans. Plus the economic activity in both rural and urban Idaho that is based on this list or one like it. A recent economic analysis commissioned by the Upper Columbia United Tribes found that an ecosystem-based management scenario could add at least $1.5 billion to the Columbia-Snake Basin’s total economic value.
There’s an additional economic argument for Idaho embracing ecosystem function: sharing the financial responsibilities of restoring endangered salmon and steelhead. Rivers do not care about political boundaries and neither do fish. The reality of warming temperatures means that Idaho’s high altitude rivers are increasingly the refuge for these species. But blocked fish passage on both sides of the border endangers these fish. Adding ecosystem function to the treaty means that Canada could share in the efforts to improve the state of these imperiled species in a way it hasn’t had to before.
Unfortunately, Idaho’s Legislature recently passed a memorial declaring that treaty renegotiation should not include ecosystem function. An interesting move considering that including ecosystem function in the treaty would go a long way toward ensuring that Canada shares the financial burden on an issue you’d think Idaho would rather not go alone. A memorial isn’t binding, but it does enshrine this short-sighted point of view for the world to see.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch holds a top oversight seat for treaty negotiations in Congress. Adding the health of the rivers to the Columbia River Treaty is not the only issue in these talks that is important to Idaho, but we hope it makes Sen. Risch’s list to keep close watch on.
River Health Is of Comparable Value
Making the health of the river a treaty purpose is not an attack on power production or flood management. Rather, it recognizes that river health is of comparable value for us today. Fifty years ago, it took a few years to learn how to integrate and optimize power production and flood control under the treaty, but integration worked for both. There is every reason to believe the same will happen once this third purpose is added.
Just today, the U.S. State Department announced that formal treaty renegotations will commence on May 29, so we will be watching what happens! Stay tuned.