Utilities blast Columbia River Treaty

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Utilities across the Pacific Northwest, including Flathead Electric Cooperative, are sounding off against draft recommendations for the future of the Columbia River Treaty, saying they haven’t been adequately represented in a process that could result in economic impacts for rate payers and the region.

The utilities present themselves as the Columbia River Treaty Power Group, an alliance that was formed in 2011 to evaluate the future of the treaty that could be terminated or modified in 2024. Any changes recommended for the treaty must be submitted by the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the end of this year.

That would set the stage for U.S. State Department negotiations with Canada over the next decade.

But draft recommendations that were issued by a treaty negotiation group called the U.S. Entity on June 27 alarmed the Power Group, which is made up of 70 Northwest utilities representing 6.4 million utility customers.

An Aug. 8 letter from the Power Group to the U.S. Entity states that the draft recommendation “fails to prioritize the paramount need to re-establish the equitable distribution of power benefits between the U.S. and Canada and improperly recommends expanding the scope of the treaty. We believe these failures are a result of our members’ interests not being represented in the Sovereign Review Team process established by the U.S. Entity to evaluate the future of the treaty.”

“Distribution of power benefits” refers to a provision in the 50-year-old treaty called the Canadian Entitlement that currently requires the U.S. to return hydropower to Canada valued at $250 million to $350 million annually. In return, the U.S. gets flood control operations from Canadian hydropower dams.

“Currently, the methodology for calculating the Canadian Entitlement represents a significant mismatch between payments to Canada and diminishing ongoing downstream power benefits in the U.S.,” the Power Group letter states. “Unfortunately, the draft recommendation fails to focus on this primary issue facing Northwest electric customers — specifically, the need to reestablish an equitable distribution of power benefits between the U.S. and Canada.”

Instead, the letter continues, the recommendation concentrates on adding “ecosystem functions” — spending on fish and wildlife mitigation programs — as a “third primary purpose of the treaty.”

Expanding the scope of the treaty in that manner is unacceptable to the Power Group.

“Nowhere does the draft recognize the substantial investments in ecosystem functions made outside the treaty for decades,” it states. “Regional electric customers have invested billions in fish protection efforts, and each of the entities providing the Canadian Entitlement already have robust environmental mitigation plans embedded in their project authorizations.”

The environmental mitigation plans have been driven by laws and regulations that have been enacted since the treaty was ratified in 1964, most significantly the federal Endangered Species Act.  

Flathead Electric Cooperative General Manager Ken Sugden sounded off on the treaty recommendations in a separate letter that was sent to Montana’s congressional delegation this week.

The draft recommendations, he said, prominently include “ecosystem recommendations that in many cases will have negative financial and operational consequences on our utility members,” Sugden said.

“From our view, renegotiating an existing international treaty is not the place to conciliate specific United States ecosystem issues, especially considering all of the current non-treaty environmental efforts ... and the multiple fish and wildlife recovery plans we have in place today,” Sugden continued.

He also charged that “certain parties” within the Sovereign Review Team developed the draft recommendations “to further their own agendas without direct representation or input from the people paying the bills, our utility customers.”

One Sovereign Review Team member representing the state of Washington, Tom Karier, recently outlined some of his views in a column for the Seattle Times.

Karier noted that Washington rate payers pay for 70 percent of the power returned to Canada, and he asserts that the amount paid to Canada can no longer be justified.

But he goes on to comment about the potential for the treaty to help fish and wildlife.

“There was no consideration given in the original treaty about the importance of flows for fish, wildlife and their habitats,” he wrote. “In recent years, some important operations have been negotiated with Canada to benefit migrating salmon and steelhead, but we can expand opportunities to improve fish survival by applying recent scientific knowledge.

“It’s also important to consider the growing needs for water in central Washington and the question of how climate change will affect all aspects of treaty operations,” Karier continued.

A good share of the Power Group’s signatories are Washington state utilities, and the coalition announced this week it has hired the Seattle and Washington, D.C.-based Van Ness Feldman law firm, which recently enlisted 18-term former Washington congressman Norm Dicks.

“As a former member of Congress and Northwest representative, I am keenly aware that this region has invested billions of dollars in the Columbia River Basin during the last five decades to protect fish and water resources,” said Dicks, a senior policy adviser for the law firm. “We need to make sure that people across the country know we have programs in place — independent of the treaty — that will protect these resources going forward.”

The utility coalition believes that the law firm and Dicks will elevate the concerns of electric customers before a final recommendation is sent to the State Department at the end of the year.

“BPA customers need an additional advocate to make sure our views are heard at the highest level in the region and in Washington, D.C.,” said Will Hart of the Idaho Consumer-Owned Utilities Association. “Our organizations are intensifying our work on the treaty to bring more balance to the process. This is an incredibly important economic issue for the region.”

Sugden said Flathead Electric Cooperative and other utilities must be better represented with any future recommendations that are made by the Sovereign Review Team.

“Without their representation, all Northwest utility customers most likely will face unfair and significant economic disadvantages that could harm the economy,” Sugden wrote.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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