Revisions to Columbia River treaty between U.S., Canada open for comments

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) are seeking public comments on a draft recommendation for modernizing the Columbia River treaty between the United States and Canada, which is approaching 50 years old.

The eight-page draft recommendation released Sept. 20 grew out of consultations with Northwest states, Native American tribes, federal agencies, public utilities and other stakeholders who provided input about how the document should be amended to address conditions that have changed since the treaty became effective.

“While the region has realized substantial benefits from the treaty since its inception in 1964, its modernization is a potential win-win opportunity for the region to achieve additional environmental and economic benefits from the Columbia River,” Elliot Mainzer, acting BPA administrator, said in the October edition of the BPA Journal.

Signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964, the original treaty was crafted after disastrous flooding along the Columbia River in the spring of 1948 and had two primary purposes: hydropower generation and flood control.

The modernized treaty envisioned in the draft recommendation would include an ecosystem-based function as a third primary purpose of the treaty, to ensure a more comprehensive approach throughout the Columbia Basin watershed. It would also create flexibility within the treaty to respond to changing conditions, including changing water supply needs and other potential changes in system operations.

The draft recommendation also seeks to modify a facet of the treaty called the Canadian Entitlement, the method for calculating Canada’s share of power benefits generated on the U.S. portion of the Columbia River system.

At present, 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 15.5 million acre-feet of storage capacity on the Canadian portion of the river system. BPA estimates the power, which is transmitted to the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority, or BC Hydro over BPA lines, is worth between $250m and $350m per year.

The current method of calculating the Canadian Entitlement was identified as outdated and no longer equitable, resulting in an unnecessarily excessive cost to regional utility ratepayers. The draft calls for the creation of “the least-cost transmission strategy for both countries to return the Canadian Entitlement to Canada.” 

The draft recommendation may be viewed at Comments must be submitted through Oct. 25 through the website,, or e-mail to BPA or the Corps.

Both nations are working on a treaty review process and are studying options in the context of modern concerns. The “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 BC Hydro.

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.