This post is not about the Columbia River Treaty (CRT); it's about a Columbia River Compact.
Confused? Let me start with the treaty.
Keep in mind I am an expert on the intricacies of neither compacts nor treaties. But I've been meaning to do this post for some time and with increased activity surrounding the Columbia River Treaty, I fugured the time is now.
The Columbia River Treaty is a big deal in 'these here parts'. Both the Canadian and US governments, not to mention states, provinces, and other stakeholders, are hard at work considering ways in which the current treaty, in effect since 1964, should be modified, if at all, starting in 2024.
Indeed, The Oregonian, one of the largest daily newspaper in the US Pacific Northwest, opined on the neeed for public input earlier this month. Here is a schedule for CRT open houses in WA, OR, MT, and ID through mid-May:
The CRT in a nutshell:
The CRT between Canada and the United States, concluded in 1961 and entering into force in 1964, addresses the cooperative management of the Columbia River but only for flood control and power purposes. The parties share the resulting benefits. The Treaty has no fixed term but either Party may unilaterally terminate the Treaty in 2024 or later provided that it gives at least ten years notice. Unilateral termination will principally affect the sharing of power benefits. This is because the flood control provisions change automatically in 2024. Those changed flood control provisions survive treaty termination as does the right of the U.S. to operate Libby Dam. In addition to these rules the governing regime will revert to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and any relevant norms of customary international law. In addition to unilateral termination, the two States may terminate the entire Treaty at any time by mutual agreement.
The 1964 CRT was ratified by the President of the United States on the advice and consent of a two thirds majority of the Senate, and ratified by the federal Crown for Canada following parliamentary approval and agreement with the province of British Columbia. Implementation has proceeded at the federal level in the U.S. through the appointment of the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and Division Engineer of the Northwestern Division U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the U.S. Entity, and in Canada through the appointment of British Columbia Hydro as the Canadian Entity.
The Treaty addressed flood control and power values but it did not directly accommodate other values including fish and related ecological values. The Treaty focused on power and flood control because the Parties believed that these were the issues where the greatest benefits could be secured through cooperative action. States in the U.S. portion of the basin were involved in negotiations through their representatives in the Senate. The province of British Columbia was also heavily involved in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Canadian side. Indigenous peoples were not involved in the development of the CRT on either side of the international boundary; neither in any significant way were other basin residents.
The Entities have reached mutually acceptable annual supplementary agreements to meet some of the non-power and non-flood concerns but many believe that these arrangements do not go nearly far enough in accommodating ecosystem values and function. The supplementary agreements do not provide an avenue for re-consideration of the formula for sharing the costs and the benefits of providing enhanced power and flood control. The dynamic created by possible treaty termination in 2024 (by notice given in 2014 or earlier) as well as the automatic changes to the flood control operations that will occur in 2024 will create both the opportunity, and perhaps the need, to take a broader look at the treaty.
The Entities have begun their own assessments of alternatives futures for the CRT and have undertaken joint studies to inform some options. The Phase I report of the entities considered three alternatives:
(1) Option A - Treaty Continues: The Treaty continues post-2024 with its current provisions including expiration of certain flood control provision.
(2) Option B - Treaty Terminated: The Treaty terminates in 2024, leaving only continuation of certain flood control provisions as in Option A. (3) Option C - Continuation of Pre-2024 Conditions: The Treaty continues post- 2024 with the existing pre-2024 flood control and other provisions. Option C would require new arrangements for implementation.
The above is from an excellent report, The Future of the Columbia River Treaty, by Nigel Bankes and Barbara Cosens, published by the Program on Water Issues of the University of Toronto's Munk School.
So what's this about a Columbia River compact? What purpose would it serve? A compact is an agreement among the seven (OR, WA, ID, UT, NV, WY, MT) US states in the Columbia-Snake basin that would prescribe allocation of the basin's waters among the states. It does not directly involve Canada or its provinces. The US government is involved in the sense that Congress must approve a compact.
Note that the CRT does not directly allocate water between the US and Canada. That could change in 2024.
Now - the compact issue.
In 2006, when I arrived in Oregon from New Mexico, I was quite surprsied to learn that the Columbia-Snake basin (CSB) did not have a compact. Keep in mind that I learned my water in the arid Southwest: AZ, NM, and NV. Hard to imagine places much drier than those three states, where I would joke that any interstate perennial waterway that can allow two minnows to swim side-by-side probably has a compact governing water allocation. Well, maybe not, but rivers like the Colorado, Rio Grande, Pecos, Truckee, et al., none of which comes close to matching the flow of the CSB, all have compacts.
Therein lies the issue: the CSB produces so much water - the mean annual flow of the Columbia at its mouth is about 200 MAF (about 7800 cms) - that people don't seem to worry about allocation among the states. When talking to PNW WaterWonks (or Water Buffaloes) I get four reasons why a CSB compact is unnecessary:
1) there's plenty of water for all;
2) all the states pretty much get along when it comes to water;
3) a compact might sour relations among the seven states; and
4) too many stakeholders would have to be involved.
The last reason reminds me of the 'old days' when you had irrigators, hydropower/fllod control people and water supply-types calling the shots. Today, you'd need those pesky enviros, tribes, watershed council types - all those folks. Gees, what mess - you'd have to rent the Rose Garden to have a stakeholders' meeting!
The first two reasons are interesting. Sure, we generally have enough water and the states do seem to get along when it comes to water. Try Texas and New Mexico!
The third reason might be valid. whenever you have a formal agreement, you have lawyers. No more settling disputes over lunch or breakfast. Litigation, anyone?
But the reason I think we need a compact is the future. Things might be fine now, water-wise, but what about the effects of climate change on water supply? We are already seeing those effects. Without an agreement now, when things are relatively tranquil, what would it be like to have to devise a compact when times are tough, water is short and more people are present? And forget about fighting amongst yourselves; you might want some protection from outsiders' depredations (think Great Lakes Compact). You want ugly?
And imagine a compact with Nevada - yes, it is in the CSB - with water-hungry Las Vegas. Interesting...
I have heard that in the last 20-30 years an attempt was made to craft a compact; it obviously failed.
Believe me, I am not underestimating how difficult it would be to develop a compact. A daunting task - getting seven states to agree on water allocation - say what? But creating a flexible, adaptive, binding document to ensure a relatvely peaceful, secure water future for the states of the Columbia-Snake basin is well worth it.
Handshake agreements may be nice, but when the 'old hands' are gone, nothing beats a legally binding document.
"When resources become skimpy, human beings don't suddenly cooperate to conserve what's left. They fight to the last scrap for possession of a diminishing resource." - Deepak Chopra