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Wyden calls for better bargain with Canada on Columbia River Treaty

From the November 18, 2013 issue of Public Power Daily

Originally published November 18, 2013

By Robert Varela
Editorial Director

The Columbia River Treaty has served both the United States and Canada well for decades, "but after nearly 50 years, it is time to strike a better bargain," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, R-Ore., said at a hearing on recommendations for renegotiating the treaty. He called for an update to the treaty that would lower costs for ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest, while protecting endangered salmon, continuing flood control efforts and addressing climate change with input from regional stakeholders.

The treaty, which was first negotiated in the 1960s, governs operations of the Columbia River in both countries. Beginning in September 2014, the treaty allows the United States and Canada to terminate most of its provisions, as long as notice is given 10 years in advance. The Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers are leading the U.S. team—known as the U.S. Entity—working on possible revisions and have released draft recommendations for changes.

The draft recommendations are a good start, but do not go far enough in addressing the problems facing the Columbia River Basin, Wyden said at a Nov. 7 hearing. "Striking a new power benefit sharing deal with Canada based on the actual benefits to both nations is the way to proceed," he said. "The treaty was drafted based on the outdated assumption that U.S. hydro-generation would be operated to maximize power production," said Wyden. "That has not been the case for decades." Under the Treaty, the U.S. is required to pay Canada for half of the estimated power generated from dams in the Columbia River Basin in what is known as the "Canadian Entitlement."

"Experts in the region calculate that Northwest ratepayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars if the payments to Canada were recalculated based on the power our region actually receives," Wyden said.

"For every dollar that we send north, we receive about 10 cents worth of value," said George Caan, executive director of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association. "The treaty is the only vehicle we have available to balance this entitlement. I look forward to a laser-like focus on this issue." The draft recommendations seem to lose sight of this fundamental point by appearing to position ecosystem function as the leading issue to pursue in treaty negotiations, he told the committee. Caan testified on behalf of the Columbia River Power Group, a coalition of more than 80 electric utilities, industry associations and other entities that depend on Columbia River hydro power.

Wyden pressed federal officials to provide the committee with a firm dollar figure on excessive payments to Canada under the treaty, plus an explanation of why the entitlement payments are too high.

The power group has concerns about the recommendation that "ecosystem function" be added as a primary purpose of the treaty, along with hydro power and flood control, Caan said. Any recommendation to add ecosystem function as a purpose must acknowledge and fully account for efforts already undertaken under existing federal and state programs to protect fish and wildlife, he told the panel. Transboundary ecosystem measures should be taken, but they should be based on sound science and be measurable and achievable and should not hurt hydro operations or flood control, he said. Congressional authorization and appropriation should be required for any additional ecosystem functions, he said.

Wyden said the treaty needs to address ecosystem function, with actions that benefit natural resources, but there should be "no blank checks."


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Senior Vice President, Publishing 
Jeanne Wickline LaBella

Editorial Director
Robert Varela

Editor, Public Power Daily
Jeannine Anderson

Communications Assistant
Fallon W. Forbush

Manager, Integrated Media 
David L. Blaylock

Integrated Media Editor 
Laura D’Alessandro