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U.S., Canada ponder new terms for shared Columbia River

Your power bill could be cheaper if the U.S. didn't send so much electricity north of the border every year. Canada lays claim to around $300 million worth of hydropower annually under the terms of a 50-year-old treaty.

In return, the Canadians manage the upper Columbia River to prevent downstream flooding and to optimize power production. The Columbia River Treaty can be renegotiated soon and there are voices on both sides of the border clamoring for a better deal.

Deadly floods

Not very often in Northwest history has a flood wiped an entire city off the map. There's a mosaic here in remembrance at what is now the Delta Park light rail stop in north Portland. This used to be Vanport City, Oregon until the swollen Columbia River burst through a dike.

Fifteen people drowned and another 18,000 were made homeless. That catastrophic spring flood has never been repeated and there's a good reason why.

"That flood, that event, led directly to the completion of the negotiations of the Columbia River Treaty," says U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager Matt Rea. He says under the treaty Canada built three crucial dams way upriver on the Columbia. The U.S. added a fourth on a tributary in Montana.

The 1961 treaty requires Canada to store water for downstream flood control.

"The Columbia River Treaty and the storage in Canada that was provided by the treaty have been very, very successful in reducing flood damages downstream," Rea says. "The United States got a very good deal for that."

Electric tradeoff

The treaty also directs Canada to assure steady downstream power generation by strategically holding and releasing water. The bargain entitles Canada to a big share of that increased electricity production from American dams.

But these days, the amount of wealth transferred north is coming under scrutiny, according to Nancy Stephan of the Bonneville Power Administration.

"We have a lot of obligations right now in terms of the river," she says. "It's not just power and flood control anymore. Given the world we live in now, I think the entitlement is based on something historical and that's not the way we operate at this point."

"So we want to take a good look at it because we think it is probably more than it should be."

Some want treaty terminated

In fact, several public utility districts with dams on the mid-Columbia want the U.S. to give notice to terminate the treaty.

Tim Culbertson manages Grant County PUD in central Washington. Culbertson estimates his utility alone contributed $50 million worth of energy last year for transfer to Canada.

"It would make a huge difference if we were able to keep that at home," Culbertson says. "That would provide a lot of money for the extensive capital infrastructure that we are rebuilding and it likely would alleviate a fair amount of rate pressure for our customers."

Culbertson is waiting for more analysis from federal agencies to learn if it's realistic to back out of the treaty. He wonders what the Canadians would do then.

"You have to analyze and say, can or would the Canadians operate their reservoirs so differently to cause detrimental impacts to the downstream projects."

2014 is the key year

Canada through the province of British Columbia has not revealed a bargaining stance. The treaty requires either country to give ten years notice to unilaterally back out.

So what's happening right now is the many people with an interest in the river are strategizing and positioning ahead of the first opportunity to give notice. That's in 2014.

As part of that, Indian tribes on both sides of the border have united in a push to add ecological considerations to any treaty revisions. In Portland, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission director Paul Lumley says the original treaty has no provisions for salmon.

"One of our great frustrations is that when the treaty was signed in the 1960s the tribes were not considered at all," he says. "Well, it's different now."

Leaders of all stripes in the Columbia basin aim to submit recommendations to the U.S. State Department by the year 2013. Ultimately, it's the State Department's job to negotiate international treaties.

In this case, the outcome will determine how the Columbia River runs for decades to come.

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.