River treaty renegotiation ‘preempted’ by U.S. bureau, warns lawyer

The Columbia River Treaty renegotiation is being “preempted” by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The Columbia River Treaty renegotiation is being “preempted” by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, says an attorney who just released a major document on climate change and the Columbia River.

Rachael Paschal Osborn of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy in Spokane, Wash., said a newly released final plan from the bureau to expand federally-subsidized irrigation in eastern Washington will needlessly cost Americans more money and threatens to destroy salmon runs—and nullify the benefits of the ongoing Canada-U.S. treaty negotiations.

As a critic of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Department of Ecology, Osborn said their “never ending programs to try and get more water” out of the Columbia River were misguided.

She was speaking after the bureau released its final environmental paper on the Columbia River late last month, with nothing contained in the report on the effect of climate change on the potential for increased demands.

“It has become apparent that they are doing this as pre-positioning, getting projects underway and getting commitments of water before somebody in the U.S. government shuts them down and says it is really not appropriate for the U.S. to be making more commitments of water out of the river until the bigger issues of the treaty are resolved,” she said.

She said the bureau was taking advantage of the fact there has not been full public recognition of the problem of climate change, and instead are just trying to grab water right now. In 2014 it will be tougher to justify taking more water out of the river.

Osborn and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, as well as the Sierra Club’s Columbia River Future Project, believe the bureau should stop with their plan until they have sufficiently evaluated the implications of making another major commitment of water.

“It’s not clear there would be wisdom in taking anymore water out of the river,” she said.

However, the Columbia River Treaty—signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964—essentially kept its hands off of domestic water supply, and that includes consumptive residential uses plus irrigation, said BC Hydro’s manager of system operation, Kelvin Ketchum.

The treaty effectively lets either country do with its water what it needs to do if its for domestic or irrigation, he explained.

Under the treaty there are prescribed rules for how much water can be released from Canadian reservoirs into the U.S., but the U.S. can then choose to use that water for fish, for power generation or for irrigation, whatever they choose, Ketchum noted.

“There is nothing in the treaty that is stopping the U.S. from doing more irrigation, but I think they have their own issues, fish versus irrigation that they have to deal with,” he said.

The U.S. is still obligated to make payments—the Canadian entitlement to downstream benefits—based on optimal power use no matter what they do with the water.

Osborn found people much more cognizant of the environmental situation in Canada. When she attended a Columbia River Treaty meeting in Castlegar in June she found “there were a lot of people talking about the treaty at a much higher level than what we get in the United States.”

Osborn just published Climate Change and the Columbia River Treaty (http://digital.law.washington.edu/), and noted the terms of the treaty were changing as they related to flood control. The U.S. will no longer be able to dictate to Canada how to operate reservoirs, she said.

Instead, the U.S. will only be able to ask for Canada’s assistance with flood water storage. But before it can do so, the U.S. must make effective use of its current reservoirs, she said, an idea drawn directly out of the treaty’s protocols.

“What that means is the U.S. is going to have to be digging deeper into its own reservoirs in order to make room for spring floods, and to be able to control flood water,” she began. “Because they will be digging deeper, draining their reservoirs more deeply in the spring months, this increases the chances that they will be unable to refill completely every year.”

With climate change already occurring and affecting flows in the river, it is anticipated there will be bigger flood flows in the spring, but there will be a big problem in the summer with less water, exacerbating low flows in the river just at the time when it is needed for agricultural and municipal uses, and in-stream for fisheries.

“So climate change will aggravate the low flow problem in the summer,” she said. “You combine this with potentially not being able to refill reservoirs and we can anticipate there is going to be a big conflict in the future between out of stream and in stream uses.”

Therefore it was unwise to be making a further commitment to more water out of the river to expand agricultural production, Osborn added.