Last week’s 50th anniversary of the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada rolled on unacknowledged. Even a Northwest version of “Jeopardy!” would evoke blank stares, speculating on newsreel of President Lyndon Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson as they sat below dishwater skies at the Peace Arch in Blaine.
“President Johnson had his 10-gallon hat and he didn’t even seem to notice the rain,” wrote the Bellingham Herald’s Ken Robertson.
But there are aspects to the agreement as outdated as LBJ’s cowboy hat. The treaty, which focuses on everything from flood control to hydro power and irrigation and has served as a template for other nations managing transboundary water disputes, needs to be modernized.
“After a multi-year process, it is clear the treaty in its current form needs to be updated to meet the modern-day issues facing the Columbia River Basin, the greater Northwest region and the nation,” Sen. Patty Murray said after the U.S. “entity” (the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) issued its recommendations to the State Department last December.
The devil is in the updated details, however, so vague language on strategies will need to suffice. For now.
As Steve Klein, the CEO of the Snohomish County PUD, said in a statement about the treaty, “It matters to everyone’s monthly electric bill.” Klein and other members of the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, comprised of electric utilities and industry associations, are pushing to eliminate the Canadian entitlement, which dings Northwest ratepayers. Terminating the treaty, which requires 10-years’ written notice, would trigger renegotiation. It’s an option, especially if Canada doesn’t agree to a more equitable sharing of benefits.
But there’s much more to treaty modernization than cheap hydro power and flood control. And here’s where the treaty betrays its age: Unlike the 1980 Northwest Power Act, there’s no ecosystem-based management, let alone accommodation for tribes and fish passage.
“Today we recognize fish, wildlife, riparian habitat conditions, water quality and water temperatures as vital issues for the treaty. All of these omissions from the current treaty are wrong from our 21st century perspective,” a coalition of religious and indigenous groups wrote. And what of climate change?
Harmonizing science, ecosystem health and fair play for tribes into a new Columbia River Treaty is Nobel Peace Prize-worthy. Ambitious, yes, but it needs to happen.