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B.C. Energy Minister Says U.S. Has A Good Deal In Columbia River Treaty

Jessica Robinson
Northwest News Network

A little-known fact about Columbia River dams is that a valuable chunk of the power generated on the U.S. side goes to Canada under an international treaty.

Northwest utilities say your power rates would be lower if that electricity could be sold to California instead of being delivered to Canada for free. This week in Spokane, the biggest players in the trans-national river basin are debating whether to extend that 50-year-old treaty.

British Columbia is home to a series of dams that can send a little or a lot of water down the Columbia River. Bill Bennett, British Columbia's Minister of Energy and Mines, said the hundreds of millions of dollars in power “entitlement” the U.S. sends back should remain the same, if not go up.

“It's our view in B.C. that the benefits of the treaty realized by the U.S. are actually worth more than the benefits we receive from the Canadian entitlement,” he said.

But Northwest utilities say the decades-old formula that determines how much power Canada gets needs to be re-jiggered -- significantly.

“It's our position that the amount of energy we're delivering should be about 15 percent of what it is today,” said Robert Cromwell with Seattle City Light.

As of this fall, the Columbia River Treaty can be re-opened and changed. However, the U.S. State Department indicates it is not in a rush to begin negotiations.

Another contentious issue that came up at the conference in Spokane is whether to restore salmon passage above Grand Coulee Dam. Tribes from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border want salmon restoration goals to be written into a revised Columbia River Treaty.

But Bennett said fish passage should be a matter the two national governments figure out separately from the treaty.

The completion of Grand Coulee Dam in the late 1930s marked the end of fish runs to spawning grounds in the Upper Columbia Basin.