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U.S. Columbia River Treaty

U.S. Columbia River Treaty chief negotiator Jill Smail listens to Global Affairs Canada negotiator Greg Lemermeyer during the Lake Roosevelt Forum in Spokane. More than 250 government officials, tribal leaders and interested river activists gathered for the two-day conference on the Columbia River Treaty, which must be renegotiated before 2024.

SPOKANE — Jill Smail, the chief negotiator for the U.S. State Department, boiled a two-day conference on trans-boundary Columbia River diplomacy down to a single sentence.

“I’m curious how people expect to pay for all these compensations,” Smail said after a panel of U.S., Canadian, American Indian and First Nations leaders listed the problems with the 1964 Columbia River Treaty.

This summer, Smail will officially start renegotiating the treaty with her Canadian counterparts. And it's a safe bet every one of the 250 people gathered at the Lake Roosevelt Forum in the Davenport Hotel here had a fix to propose.

“The treaty is kind of like a Christmas tree right now, all covered with ornaments,” said John Harrison of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. “When you start negotiating, everybody wants everything. Some of the ornaments will have to come off.”

Montana State Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, put it another way.

“This is our opportunity to have input into a major international treaty,” he said. “Maybe it’s not the nuclear deal with Iran or ending a war. But the Treaty of 1964 helped the Northwest become an economic and political power base. As we rework that, there are a lot of benefits for both nations. But there were a lot of little people who need to be looked out for who were overlooked the first time.”

The forum brought together mayors and county commissioners, tribal chairmen and fisheries biologists, power utility executives and legislators, and “enough state, federal and local agencies to screw in several lightbulbs,” according to Andy Dunau, executive director of the forum.

They came to hear what issues may drive the talks that forge a new treaty governing the Columbia River Basin, which covers a landscape the size of France and includes British Columbia, Montana and four other U.S. states, 32 indigenous nations and two federal governments.

Cuffe was in Spokane to represent Montana’s interests on Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa, which extends more than 40 miles across the Canadian border. Hungry Horse Dam and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ facility on Flathead Lake also contribute to the Columbia River Treaty arithmetic.

In a nutshell, the old treaty covered two issues: Flood control and hydroelectric generation. A traumatic flood in 1948 that damaged Bonners Ferry and Portland inspired the work, backed by the 20th Century’s ongoing interest in dam-building throughout the American West.

Smail’s marching orders call for inserting a third topic: ecosystem functions like wild salmon habitat and environmental restoration.

Representatives from 15 Indian tribes planned to have dinner with Smail and Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, on Tuesday evening to further push for a seat at the negotiating table. While Palmieri assured the audience that tribal nations would have full government-to-government consultation in the treaty process, that fell short of native hopes to be full negotiating partners.

Jim Heffernan, a policy analyst for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said since the treaty was first enacted, those tribes have developed deep expertise in restoring fisheries, modeling river environment functions and documenting historic and cultural uses of the region. That information will form a crucial part of the modernization negotiations.

“The tribes are really looking out for everybody in the basin,” Heffernan said. “We’re not asking to get benefits. We’re asking for our resources back. The salmon was our first food, our way of life. Those were things we had. We want to restore the balance.”

Deb Kozak of the Association of Kootenai and Boundary Local Governments brought out some of the missed opportunities on the Canadian side of the border.

“We see ongoing negative impacts from the treaty,” Kozak said. Her slide show displayed the dust storms, debris piles, stranded marinas and other drawbacks from reservoir drawdowns that whipsawed Columbia River communities in British Columbia. A modern treaty could take those problems into account by listening to local governments and First Nation leaders, she said.

“We must take the environment into consideration,” Kozak said. “Ecosystem management must take precedence.”

But that could mean big disruptions to the traditional uses of flood control, hydropower generation and irrigation that 12 million people in the Columbia River Watershed have come to rely on. For example, Portland has built its international airport in the Columbia’s floodplain.

“We have a tendency to engineer ourselves into problems,” said Greg Haller of Portland-Pacific Rivers, a nonprofit organization lobbying for environmental restoration on the Columbia. “The question is who pays for flood risk? Should it be a regional or national cost? We don’t want to solve this like Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina in the aftermath.”

After the forum’s conclusion on Wednesday, Smail was scheduled to hold a formal State Department town hall to hear public comments on the treaty issues in Spokane.

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