Deadline approaches for comments on Columbia River treaty between U.S., Canada

As the Columbia River treaty between the United States and Canada approaches 50 years old, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) are soliciting input about how the document should be amended to address conditions that have changed since the treaty became effective.

The comments must be submitted by Aug. 16 through the website,, or e-mail to BPA or the Corps.

Signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964, the treaty was crafted after disastrous flooding along the Columbia River in the spring of 1948, primarily to reduce flood risk and support hydropower generation, which were the two major concerns of the time.

Under provisions of the treaty, Canada built the Duncan, Keenleyside and Mica dams to create 15.5 million acre-feet of storage capacity that would be used to help smooth out the river’s seasonal flow for both flood control and managing power generation needs. In exchange, Canada receives one-half of the downstream power benefits, which are defined in the treaty as the difference between the amounts of electricity capable of being generated with and without the Canadian storage.

The two nations have embarked on a treaty review process and are studying options in the context of modern concerns. A U.S. “entity,” appointed by the president, consists of the BPA administrator and the Northwestern Division engineer of the Corps. The Canadian entity, appointed by the Canadian cabinet, is the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority, or BC Hydro.

In the years since the treaty was enacted, several things have changed. For instance, the environmental consciousness of both nations has increased, issues that were not anticipated in the original treaty have surfaced, and the cost of electricity has changed. As a result, the U.S. entity, regional sovereigns comprising four Northwest states, 15 tribal governments, and 11 government agencies, and stakeholders agree that the treaty should be modernized to reflect the current values and priorities of the region.

One of the facets the parties agree should be revisited is the value of the coordinated power benefits to Canada. That value should be “reasonably and fairly balanced between the U.S. and Canada and this should be reflected in the calculation of the Canadian Entitlement return,” the parties said in a June 27 letter seeking comments. At present, BPA estimates the power, which is transmitted to BC Hydro over BPA lines, is worth between $250m and $350m per year.

The parties also generally agree that incorporating ecosystem-based functions into a revised treaty should be a third priority, in addition to flood control and hydropower generation. Improvements in ecosystem function should also be included in the revisions, including augmentation of stream flows in spring and summer, and discussions with Canada on the feasibility of restoring fish passage on the main stem of the Columbia River.

The parties also agree that a revised treaty should be flexible enough to adapt to the impacts of changing environmental conditions, including a strategy for dealing with dry years. Further, they agree that important river uses such as navigation and recreation should not be negatively affected by treaty operations

Final recommendations are due to the U.S. Department of State in December and will detail which elements the Pacific Northwest would like the department to pursue in negotiations with Canada.

Under terms of the treaty, either country may terminate the treaty after it has been in force for 60 years, provided that it delivers written notice of its intent to terminate the treaty 10 years in advance. The earliest that notice could be given is Sept. 16, 2014.