Key Principles for a New Columbia River Treaty

Key Principles for a New Columbia River Treaty


In 1964, the United States and Canada signed the Columbia River Treaty to coordinate power production and flood control, benefiting both countries. Either country can terminate most of the Treaty’s provisions on or after 2024 with a minimum of 10 years advanced notice.

The flood risk mitigation aspect of this treaty is of vital importance to public safety, regional development in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington agriculture. Without the provisions of the treaty, U.S. flood control would rely heavily on Washington reservoirs and lakes on which agriculture is also dependent.

Timely renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, by lead negotiator, Jill Smail, that includes consideration of irrigated agriculture, must be a priority to protect Washington agriculture.


The Columbia Basin Project provides for irrigated agriculture in central Washington that generates $5.81 billion in cumulative national economic activity annually (2010 Entrix Report: Economic Contribution of Agriculture Irrigated by the Columbia Basin Project). Failure to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty with terms favorable to U.S. agriculture and input from Pacific Northwest stakeholders puts this significant contribution to the state and national economy at risk.


Treaty renegotiation, by the U.S. must include the following key principles:

  • The State Department should engage Pacific Northwest stakeholders at all stages of the negotiations to seek input and feedback on all aspects of the negotiations with Canada.
  • The modernized Treaty must not negatively impact irrigation operations or impair the legal use of state-based water rights.
  • The modernized Treaty recognizes the value of irrigated agriculture in the Columbia River basin and does not impact current or future agricultural operations and opportunities.
  • The modernized Treaty should provide the opportunity to access storage that will provide for timing of flows that will allow new off stream water supply including access to the Columbia Basin Project’s reserved water right.
  • New water supply must be appropriated under state water law.
  • Under the new “called-upon” storage period of the Treaty only the 7 previously identified Columbia River federal reservoirs will have responsibility for maximizing flood control in the United States.
  • Tributary reservoirs will not be responsible for flood control in the “called upon” storage era.
  • New flood control operations under a modernized Treaty must not negatively impact the operation or cost of irrigation facilities behind Grand Coulee Dam.
  • The inclusion of new provisions to the Treaty that enhance or support eco-system function should recognize efforts under federal environmental laws including the extensive and costly efforts of the Bonneville Power Administration and the ongoing Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act.
  • The addition of eco-system function elements to the Treaty should be carefully vetted by all Pacific Northwest stakeholders to insure their compatibility with existing regional operations and expectations.
  • The 10-year notice of termination of the Canadian Entitlement should be used as a mechanism for moving negotiations of the modernized treaty forward.


Others advocating for these key principles include the Washington State Water Resources Association (WSWRA), the coordinating agency for irrigation districts in Washington State providing water to over 1.1 million acres of irrigated agriculture in Washington State. WSWRA consist of over 100 irrigation districts. Agriculture is a major economic force in Washington State. The market value of agricultural products sold by these districts was in excess of $6.1 billion in 2012.

Information as of February 28, 2018.

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