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Looking at the Columbia River Treaty and dams | Don Brunell
There’s an old saying, “There’s more than one way to catch a cat.” It means, if you don’t succeed one way, try again using a different strategy.
In this case, the “cat” is the Columbia River — or more precisely, eliminating the dams and commercial use of the river. The activists’ vision of a wild, free-flowing Columbia River has great emotional appeal, but it would have dire consequences for our state.
Those dams produce 75 percent of our electricity, making Washington the largest producer of clean, affordable hydropower in the nation. How will we heat and light our offices, factories, hospitals, schools and homes with 75 percent less electricity?
In addition, the dams provide flood control and make it possible to irrigate nearly two million acres of farmland in Eastern Washington. According to Washington State University, two-thirds of our state’s agricultural production comes from irrigated land. What happens to us if that disappears?
Those thorny questions have largely stymied activists’ efforts to eliminate man-made constraints on the Columbia River system.
But now, they’re trying a different strategy.
It involves the Columbia River Treaty, an obscure 50-year old agreement with Canada that governs the joint management of the Columbia River. The treaty is up for renewal in 2024, and the parties must give 10 years’ notice if they want to change it.
The Obama administration wants to change it.
In draft recommendations released June 27, the U.S. says it wants to modernize the treaty to better reflect Northwest priorities. Specifically, the feds want to add “ecosystem functions” as a third primary purpose of the treaty, alongside flood control and power generation. But as drafted, the recommendations make fish the first priority.
One recommendation is to send more water over the dams in the spring to aid salmon. But higher water levels could be a hazard to safe navigation, according to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA), which represents more than 130 public and private groups that use the river. PNWA adds that releasing more water in the spring means less water would be available to augment low water levels in the summer, making the river too shallow for commercial barge traffic. Barge operators would be forced to carry lighter loads and leave hundreds of tons of Washington grain and other products sitting on the dock at a cost of $22 million per year.
The Columbia River Treaty Power Group, a coalition of 70 Northwest utilities, industry associations and other major electricity users, says the recommendations will reduce electricity generation and increase prices. Washington’s low electricity rates have — until now — been a major draw for companies to locate here. European automaker BMW sited its $100 million carbon fiber facility in Moses Lake in 2011 specifically because of our low electricity rates. What will happen to our economy if that advantage disappears?
Former Congressman Norm Dicks says the Northwest already has ample environmental protections without the treaty.
“I am keenly aware that this region has invested billions of dollars in the Columbia River Basin during the last five decades to protect fish and water resources,” said Dicks.
In fact, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife is predicting the largest return of fall Chinook in nearly 40 years. If the government’s recommendations are intended to improve salmon runs, we’re doing a pretty good job already.
Obviously, environmental activists have a right to press their agenda with the Obama administration. But when the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration make their final recommendations to the Department of State later this year, those recommendations should represent all of us.
There is much at stake for generations to come.