River treaty negotiations continue; agencies making plans

Pacific Northwest legislators and stakeholders gathered in Whitefish, Mont., last month at the Council of State Governments West Legislative Council on River Governance. The Washington Association of Wheat Growers was represented by Executive Director Michelle Henning (front row, fourth from right).Photo by Carina West.

Last month, Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, was invited to attend the Council of State Governments West (CSG West) Legislative Council on River Governance in Whitefish, Mont., where she heard an update on the Columbia River Treaty from U.S. negotiator Jill Smail and Stephen Glock, a negotiator from the Canadian team.

Hennings said Smail seemed confident that the treaty will be renegotiated by the deadline, which is September 2024. 

“My impression is that negotiations right now are focusing on flood control, with Canada asking for the flexibility to hold more water in their reservoirs to better meet their environmental and recreational needs,” Hennings said. “Wheat growers are invested in seeing the treaty modernized as it directly impacts how the dams on the Columbia-Snake River System are managed.”

The Legislative Council on River Governance is a cooperative, bipartisan program comprised of state legislators from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Through collaborative efforts, members can exchange information and identify solutions to address the challenges and opportunities along the Columbia and Snake River basins.

While the treaty doesn’t expire until next year, the U.S. agencies involved in the Columbia River System are considering potential impacts to the way the system is managed for flood risk, whether the treaty is updated or not. In four virtual sessions held in September and October, federal planners from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) provided some information to the public.

“It is imperative that we develop plans for future operations with and without reaching an agreement with Canada on a modernized Columbia River Treaty regime,” said Brigadier General Geoff Van Epps, commander of the Corps’ Northwestern Division, in the Sept. 27 session.

Without a new agreement, the U.S. will not be able to direct the operation of space in Canada until it is necessary, what the Corps is calling “real time operations for flood risk management.” This could lead to deeper drafts in Grand Coulee and unpredictable flows, reducing some of the management flexibility the Corps has had in the past. Unpredictable flows will also make it more difficult for the Corps to manage the dams in such a way that all authorized purposes of the dams are met, such as navigation, irrigation, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Even with an updated treaty, the Corps believes Canada is likely to operate its reservoirs differently than it does today, but the agency is unsure how the flows will change. Canada makes up 15% of the Columbia River Basin but provides 35% of the flow on average. Some of the possible impacts that unpredictable flows could have on the Columbia River System include:

  • A higher chance of flooding, which could lead to increasing repair costs on levees and dikes, more expensive flood insurance, and expanded floodplain areas.
  • I-5 bridge lifts may become more common if there are more high water events.  
  • Increased shipping costs due to more frequent high water events and more disruptions in late summer due to low water.
  • Changes to the timing and cost of pumping irrigation water to Banks Lake.
  • Lower reservoir levels may increase shoreline erosion and make boat ramps less accessible.

“At this point we simply don’t know the actual changes in reservoir operations or potential changes in flooding because we don’t know how Canada will be operating their system,” Van Epps said. A recording of the session is available at nwd.usace.army.mil/CRWM/Columbia-River-Treaty/.