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U.S. Side Calls For Columbia River Treaty To Be 'Modernized'

Gregg M. Erickson
File photo of Grand Coulee Dam, looking Southeast.

The American negotiating position became clearer Friday in what promises to be difficult bargaining to update a water treaty with Canada.

After years of discussion on this side of the border, two federal agencies formally asked the U.S. State Department to "modernize" the nearly 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty.

In 1964, the U.S. and Canada ratified the Columbia River Treaty to ensure flood control and steady hydropower production along the shared river. It has worked, but in the American view, Northwest ratepayers now substantially overpay BC Hydro to coordinate water flows from upstream reservoirs.

Portland-based Matthew Rea of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped lead regional consultations which concluded the treaty should be revised.

"My sense is that we have a high degree of regional support," says Rea. "I'm not sure I would call it consensus. But certainly from the key parties, I think they are generally in a position of wanting to move forward."

Rea says cutting a new deal with Canada will be tough. In a statement released Friday, the Province of British Columba asserted the U.S. is underpaying -- not overpaying -- for the benefits it receives.

"Our coordination enables the US to effectively manage their flood control needs, environmental requirements, water supply for agriculture, communities and industry, as well as navigation of the river to name a few of the benefits," wrote Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesperson Matt Gordon. "It is our view the benefits of the Treaty that the United States realizes are actually worth more" than the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity B.C. is entitled to annually in return.

B.C. is also cool to the idea of adding ecosystem improvement goals to the Columbia River Treaty.

Northwest tribal groups and environmentalists applauded the proposed inclusion of ecosystem protection as a third primary purpose of the treaty -- along with hydropower production and flood risk management.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission director Paul Lumley says there appears to be enough regional consensus to satisfy the U.S. State Department.

"This is the only example I can think of where we have to have broad regional support and true collaboration or it won't work," he says. "The State Department has told us they will not go to Canada and open up a treaty for a contentious renegotiation if they don't have that kind of broad regional consensus. They'll just drop the topic."

In their finalized regional recommendation, the Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers urged the U.S. State Department to initiate direct talks with Canada in mid-2014 with a goal of concluding negotiations on a "modernized" treaty in 2015.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.