WASHINGTON — After a long delay, the Obama administration has signaled that it’s ready to launch talks with Canada to renew the 51-year-old Columbia River Treaty, a controversial pact that created dams for electricity and flood control in the Pacific Northwest.
But there will be one big change from the negotiations that created the original 1964 treaty: This time, the United States plans a major push on environmental issues.
It’s a welcome development for leaders of conservation groups and Indian tribes who want the U.S. and Canada to join forces to tackle any damage caused by global warming on the 1,243-mile Columbia River.
“Climate change is not something that you can sort of draw a line at the border,” said Pat Ford of Boise, Idaho, who represents Save Our Wild Salmon, which has offices in Spokane and Seattle.
Many environmental groups cite scientific models that show rising temperatures reducing the snow pack and glacier mass in nearby mountains, resulting in less water for the Columbia during seasonal runoffs.
Ford said climate change will be “the single biggest issue” in managing the river, adding: “We’re already facing it.”
The State Department announced its intentions in a letter last month to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It came after 26 members of Congress from Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Montana complained to President Barack Obama about the “slow pace” of the administrative review.
In their April letter, the members told Obama they wanted to “express consternation” and urged him to make the treaty a top priority this year.
They got the news they wanted to hear in a May 20 reply from Julia Frifield, assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the State Department. She said that “internal deliberations are gaining momentum” and that the administration was getting ready to move.
“We hope to approach Canada soon to begin discussions on modernization of the treaty,” Frifield wrote.
The Columbia River, the longest in the Northwest, starts as a stream in the mountains of Canada before entering Lake Roosevelt at the U.S.-Canadian border and eventually discharging into the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Ore.
Congress approved the treaty in response to a 1948 flood that destroyed the city of Vanport, Ore. The Columbia now has 274 hydroelectric dams, making it one of the most hydroelectrically-developed rivers in the world.
Indian tribes and other critics have long complained that the dams made it impossible for salmon to navigate the river.
“The river was the lifeblood for the tribes,” said D.R. Michel of Spokane, executive director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes. “Overall, it’s been very devastating for the culture of the tribes and the loss of our salmon. That was 80 percent of our diet.”
But he’s hopeful that the Columbia will be home to more salmon if the treaty emphasizes environmental concerns.
“It’s huge for the entire region that we start managing the river with those other parts in mind,” Michel said. “It’s huge for everybody.”
While the original treaty focused on hydropower generation and flood-risk management, U.S. negotiators now will propose adding “ecosystem function” as a third major component .
A coalition of more than 80 Northwest electric utilities and industry associations opposed the move, saying a top concern should be reducing costs for Northwest electric consumers. In a 2013 letter to federal officials, the Columbia River Treaty Power Group said that adding a third primary purpose to the treaty could lead to “conflicting obligations and priorities.”
Dan James, a spokesman for the group, said coalition members still have questions regarding the cost and scope of new ecosystem programs and that they should be examined in light of expensive programs already underway.
For many advocacy groups with a stake in the treaty, the State Department letter marked the first time that they had heard anything from Washington, D.C., since a package of regional recommendations had been finalized in December of 2013.
“It’s obviously good news,” Ford said. “It’s a secret process. I have no problem with that, but that means we not have had any access or ability to know what’s going on.”
John Osborn, a Spokane physician who coordinates the Ethics and Treaty Project, called the letter “a very strong signal” but noted that the Canadian government has yet to commit to any negotiations. He said the delay has been “a source of anxiety but credited the push by members of Congress for getting the administration to move.
“This is coming out of the region,” Osborn said. “It’s coming from the Northwest insisting and pleading with the administration to move forward.”
Osborn said environmental issues were overlooked in the original treaty. And he said the river has “operated as a machine,” with two goals in mind: maximizing hydropower and reducing the risk of floods.
“That’s the way it’s been since 1964 and it’s not surprising,” he said. “That needs to change.”
Michel said the delay in Washington has been frustrating, but he said tribes have been patient and are happy to be part of the treaty talks. They were excluded the first time around.
“We’ve been very patient,” he said. “We’d rather get it right than rush into something.”