Jack McNeel
Chief Joseph Dam is one of many dams along the Columbia River built for flood control and hydropower production, the second largest such producer in the United States.

Water Power: 15 Tribes Have a Say in Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

Jack McNeel
July 25, 2013


In 1964 a monumental agreement between the United States and Canada was signed with two basic purposes: power production and flood control for both countries. It was called the Columbia River Treaty and was to affect nearly everyone in the northwestern states and adjacent Canada. It has served those two purposes well but now needs updating to consider other concerns. The 21st century has brought to light other considerations that include ecosystem-based functions.

The treaty specified it could be changed in the future but required a 10-year written notice for changes to take effect. The goal is to have changes included in the year 2024 to bring them up to 21st century concerns, but that means having them finalized and agreed upon in 2014. Work has been underway for three years. The U.S. Entity is headed up by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and features a Sovereign Review Team (SRT) that includes four northwest states, 15 tribes, and 11 federal agencies.

The 15 tribes include the Cowlitz, Salish and Kootenai, Upper Columbia United Tribes, and Upper Snake River Tribes. Five individuals represent the 15 tribes. The representatives are listed on the website.

Mike Hansen, public affairs specialist for the BPA, explained that hydropower and flood risk management would still be two of the primary benefits as they were in 1964 but an ecosystem-based function should be added. “It’s like adding a third leg to the stool,” he said. This ecosystem-based function would basically be a fish and wildlife component. “That was the main goal of this effort,” Hansen added.

One point yet to be decided concerns how additional water is used should more storage capacity be available in Canada. “I think the tribal position and some others is that the additional water supply should be used to meet the ecosystem based functions first, and then meet the other needs,” Hansen said. “Others, like the states where they’re concerned about irrigation and other out-of-river uses think there should be a different allocation of that water.” Public input is important in making that decision.

One modification being considered concerns augmentation of stream flows in spring and summer and to have a strategy in place for plans during a dry year. Another consideration is that a modernized treaty should be flexible enough to adapt to impacts of such things as climate change as this treaty could potentially extend for decades. Still another is to discuss with Canada the feasibility of restoring fish passage on the main stem of the Columbia.

Another point still under debate concerns flood risk practices. “Some on the SRT, including the tribes, have questioned those practices by the Corps of Engineers and if there is a way for a more flexible system to allow for greater flow and take a greater risk,” Hansen explained. Changing the level of flood protection would also require working with Congress for authorization to make that change.

Joe Peone, Colville, working for BPA in tribal affairs, commented that three topics were of primary concern to tribes. Flood risk management and ecosystem-based function were two but there is a third: tribal resource protection. “Tribes anticipate that those operations, no matter which one, are going to provide additional impacts to the cultural resources, whether they are artifacts or grave sites or a way of life. The tribes are pushing pretty hard that cultural resource protection will be put back on the table for discussion as they implement whatever operation comes out of this negotiation. Of the 15 tribes, I think only nine or 10 of them have contracts in place with BPA, the Corps of Engineers, or Bureau of Reclamation to do cultural resource protection.”

The immediate need is to receive input from anyone who cares to have a voice in the process. Stakeholders include not only hydropower customers of the BPA but people who use the Columbia River for navigation and recreation which include the numerous Indian tribes. There is now a working draft of the regional recommendation. This contains not only the working draft but the timeline and a comment form. Input must be received by September to allow time for the U.S. Entity to consolidate changes and send a final version to the Department of State in December.