The Columbia River Treaty

The Columbia River Treaty

By: Tom Myrum, Executive Director, Washington State Water Resources Association

The Columbia River Treaty was signed between the United States and Canada in the 1960s to solve the threat of flooding down river and to provide a major boost in regional hydropower generation. It has been 60 years of a very successful and productive relationship with Canada, but some of the original terms are about to expire. In less than three years, the flood risk management (FRM) regime could change from the security of six year assured operating plans to a “called upon” FRM operation that requires the United States to ask Canada for storage of floodwaters on an annual basis. The new “called upon” program is not defined in the treaty, which could impact the operations of Grand Coulee Dam and the level of Lake Roosevelt in the process. (Lake Roosevelt provides the largest Treaty storage space in American reservoirs.)

The Columbia River Treaty negotiations between the U.S. State Department and Canada completed 10 rounds of negotiations, but have not reconvened since June 2020. The two sides exchanged proposals, but little has officially taken place since then. Senator Cantwell recently added amendments to the bipartisan infrastructure funding bill that, among other things, authorizes $100 million for modifications to the Keys pumping plant behind Grand Coulee. This facility pumps vital irrigation water supply to the Columbia Basin Project (Project). The authorization of $100 million for the Keys plant could mitigate any potential deep drawdown impacts associated with the “called upon” FRM scenario in 2024. The Bureau of Reclamation will be responsible for determining the feasibility of changes to the Keys pumping plant. Ideally, there will be a resolution to treaty negotiations, and a new treaty will be signed between the two countries without the need for any changes to the Keys pumping plant.

The Project districts are paying very close attention to treaty developments regarding the operation of Grand Coulee Dam, Lake Roosevelt, and the Keys Pumping Plant. As we get closer to the 2024 “called upon” storage regime, the Project irrigation districts will continue to engage with legislators, the State Department, and the Interior Department to ensure that they are all aware of the potential impacts to the project in the event of alterations to the current FRM regime. There are many other elements to the negotiations with Canada, but flood risk management is central to the mission of the treaty, and is often determinative of power generation and other downstream benefits. The United States and Canada held the eleventh round of negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty regime on December 9, 2021.

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