House panel hears about hydro imbalance in U.S.-Canada treaty

The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee held a full committee oversight field hearing Dec. 9 in Pasco, Wash., on “The Future of the US-Canada Columbia River Treaty – Building on 60 years of Coordinated Power Generation and Flood Control.”

The Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada was put in place in 1964 and since then has provided the framework for coordinated hydropower generation and flood control on the Columbia River system. Starting in 2014, either side can terminate or propose changes to the treaty with 10 years notice. The U.S. side has released draft recommendations regarding potential modifications to the treaty and will soon send final recommendations to the U.S. State Department.

The Dec. 9 hearing featured testimony from the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Canadian side (called the “Canadian Entity”), public utility districts, rural electric cooperatives, irrigation, navigation, tribes, and other local stakeholders.

Numerous witnesses noted the importance of hydropower in providing clean, low-cost electricity to the Pacific Northwest; stressed the need to rebalance the Canadian entitlement, saying that it exceeds the actual power benefit received; and discussed the need to keep the Treaty focused on the core functions of coordinated power generation and flood control.

“While modest improvements have been witnessed in the U.S. Entity’s draft recommendations, I remain concerned that ‘ecosystem issues’ continue to be emphasized over the core Treaty functions that plainly will need to be addressed in bilateral discussions with Canada,” said Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash. “It is my hope and expectation that the final recommendation from the U.S. Entity will make clear to the State Department that the priorities we need to address are the entitlement and flood control.”

“The Columbia River Treaty is an incredibly complex issue that has – and will continue to have – a profound impact on Pacific Northwest communities, businesses, and environment. The future of the Treaty has implications for power generation, navigation, irrigation, recreation, fish, cultural and tribal resources to name a few. That’s why it is absolutely critical that our region work together to produce a consensus framework for renegotiating the Treaty that will continue the generation of reliable, inexpensive, carbon-free power; protect public safety and property from floods; and build upon existing domestic investments to restore salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin,” said Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

U.S. power companies say too much power going to Canada

Testimony came in part from Elliot Mainzer, Acting Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration. In that capacity, he serves as the Chairman of the U.S. Entity for the Columbia River Treaty.

Mainzer said that he believes that through extensive collaboration efforts the parties to the treaty have assisted the region to find a middle ground that attempts to recognize and balance all of these viewpoints and interests in the region. They believe that it is possible to simultaneously:

  • Reduce the U.S. obligation, paid by Northwest ratepayers, to return power to Canada that reflects the actual value of coordinated power operations with Canada.
  • Define a workable approach to flood risk management that will continue to provide a similar level of flood risk management to protect public safety and the region’s economy;
  • Contribute to a more comprehensive ecosystem-based function approach throughout the Columbia River Basin watershed by formalizing and providing greater certainty for ecosystem actions already being undertaken so that they complement the existing ecosystem investments in the region; and
  • Pursue operational flexibility necessary to respond to climate change, and other future potential changes in system operations while continuing to meet authorized project purposes such as irrigation and navigation.

Scott Corwin, Executive Director of the Public Power Council (PPC), an association representing consumer-owned electric utilities of the Pacific Northwest that purchase power and transmission marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), also testified. PPC is also a member of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, consisting of over 80 electric utilities, industry associations and other entities that depend on power produced by the Columbia River hydropower plants.

“Our primary concern has been to ensure that the Treaty discussions prioritize the fundamental need to reestablish an equitable distribution of power benefits between the U.S. and Canada,” Corwin wrote in his prepared testimony. “If this inequity is not addressed, it will be an enormous lost opportunity and a disservice to the citizens of the Northwest United States. We share the goal of building the broadest agreement possible to build a base of better engagement with Canada next year. The Columbia River Treaty has provided benefits to both countries since its inception. It is our hope that a rebalancing of the Treaty in the future will ensure mutual benefit for decades to come.”

If the Treaty continued using the current calculations for the Canadian Entitlement, by 2025 the U.S. would be returning to Canada about 450 MW on average of clean hydropower and 1,300 MW of capacity each year, valued at $250m to $350m annually (not to mention its value for system operations and reliability), Corwin wrote. Northwest electric customers are likely to provide well over $2bn in benefits to Canada over the next 10 years alone, despite the U.S. Entity’s own estimate that the actual annual value of this benefit to the U.S. is only in the range of $25m to $30m (i.e., only one-tenth of the current Canadian Entitlement obligation), Corwin added.

Anthony Webb, the General Manager of Public Utility District No. 2 of Grant County, Wash., expressed similar concerns during the Dec. 9 hearing about reworking the power balance that has shifted heavily in Canada’s favor.

Rick Crinklaw, the General Manager of Lane Electric Cooperative, located in Eugene, Ore., said the current state of the treaty is leading to higher power costs for it and its customers, hurting overall economic activity in the area.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.