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The Columbia River Treaty Review

USACE plays a key role in modernizing a 50-year-old international agreement.

The community of Vanport, located between Portland and the Columbia River, was once Oregon’s second-largest city, with 40,000 people, mostly World War II shipyard workers and their families, living in housing built on the floodplain. But Vanport isn’t there anymore. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1948, it was destroyed by a flood that killed 50 people and inundated homes, farms, levees, and dikes along more than a 500-mile stretch of the river.

There had been discussion between the United States and Canada, before 1948, about coordinating flood control efforts and boosting hydropower generation on the Columbia River Basin – the majority of which lies on the U.S. side of the international border, but whose peak flows are fed significantly by snowmelt high in the Canadian Rockies. The catastrophic floods lent urgency to these talks, but the issues were so complex that a treaty wasn’t signed until 1961,with ratification by both countries completed in 1964. The pact that ultimately resulted, the Columbia River Treaty, is regarded today as a model for joint management of a river basin that crosses international boundaries.

As 2014 approaches, so does a crucial milestone for the Columbia River Treaty. While it has no specified end date, beginning in 2024 the treaty contains provisions that will change the way flood risk management operations are implemented. It also specifies that either party may unilaterally terminate most provisions of the treaty in 2024, with a minimum of 10 years’ notice.

The Columbia River Treaty includes provisions designed to reduce downstream flood risk. It obligated Canada to operate a baseline amount of storage in upstream reservoirs, and to increase this storage if requested by the United States. The United States, in turn, tendered a $64.4 million pre-payment to compensate Canada for helping to prevent projected flood damages through the construction and operation of reservoirs in Canada.

Under the treaty, Canada also agreed to additional water storage for the purpose of optimizing power generation flows downstream. In return, the United States agreed to pay Canada an amount equal to one-half of the estimated power benefits accrued from this storage. This amount – now estimated between $250 million and $350 million a year – is known as the Canadian Entitlement.

These transactions helped fund the construction, from 1967 to 1973, of the Duncan, Arrow (today known as the Keenleyside), and Mica dams in British Columbia, and Libby Dam in Libby, Mont. During the past 50 years, as specified by the treaty, provisions have been implemented by the U.S. Entity and Canadian Entity, representing the respective governments. Today the U.S. Entity, appointed by the president, consists of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Northwestern Division engineer and the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the agency responsible for marketing and transmitting power from federally owned hydroelectric projects in the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian Entity consists of the Province of British Columbia – the current owner of the Canadian Entitlement – and B.C. Hydro, a Crown corporation of the province.

Libby Dam

Four dams were constructed under the Columbia River Treaty: Duncan Dam, Mica Dam, and Keenleyside Dam in Canada, and Libby Dam (above) in the United States. USACE photo, Seattle District

As 2014 approaches, so does a crucial milestone for the Columbia River Treaty. While it has no specified end date, beginning in 2024 the treaty contains provisions that will change the way flood risk management operations are implemented. It also specifies that either party may unilaterally terminate most provisions of the treaty in 2024, with a minimum of 10 years’ notice.

While neither has publicly stated it wants to terminate the Columbia River Treaty, both the United States and Canada have acknowledged that, as complicated as water resource management was in 1964, it’s much more complicated now.

“A couple of years ago, when we looked ahead to the 2014 horizon,” said USACE’s David Ponganis, Northwestern Division director of programs and coordinator for the USACE side of the U.S. Entity, “the Canadian and U.S. entities thought we should probably do some joint studies to consider how we want the treaty to look in 2024.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...