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Dead and buried: Reflections on life before the Libby Dam
Seen in this oft-handled, folded and worn photograph, the town of Warland as it appeared in the early 1900s and the Kootenai River before the construction of Libby Dam.
Photo courtesy of Colleen Woodward

KALISPELL – An obscure treaty between the United States and Canada that controls more water than all the dams in the Pacific Northwest is under review for the first time in 50 years, and Montana has plenty at stake in the policy decision.

The Columbia River Treaty is an accord reached in 1964 when the two countries were discussing provisions to allay the threat of floods that had recently devastated Oregon’s second-largest city. At the same time, regulators were looking to increase the power supply to a fast-growing population in the Pacific Northwest.

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The end result was a hydroelectric blitz that led to the construction of three dams upstream in British Columbia and one, Libby Dam, in Montana. It had the combined effect of doubling the storage capacity in the Columbia River basin.

“It was huge,” said Mike Hansen of the Bonneville Power Administration. “On the U.S. side of the border, we don’t have a lot of storage capacity, and geologically Canada had the right places to build these facilities.”

Although the treaty does not have an expiration date, either country can back out of the provisions after September 2024, but are required to give a 10-year minimum notice. That means treaty talks could begin in 2014, and BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are reviewing the accord in consultation with 11 federal agencies, four Northwest states and 15 tribes, who were left out of the discussions a half-century ago.

In an effort to involve the public in the discussions, the BPA and Corps are holding listening sessions in communities throughout the Northwest, including one in Kalispell on July 18. They will ultimately make a recommendation to the U.S. State Department in the fall of 2013.

“Basically we’re engaged in this review process to take a look at whether this is worth continuing, terminating or modifying in some way, given that 50 years have passed and a lot has changed,” Hansen said.

Chief among those changes are environmental concerns that were not considered in 1964, such as the effects of climate change and glacial melt on water flows, and salmon, bull trout and white sturgeon fisheries.

“We have a lot of new interests that weren’t really considered when the treaty was signed in ’64,” Hansen said. “We are taking into account fish and wildlife, biological opinions, interest in irrigation, navigation and recreation.”

Another hot issue is that, while construction of the Duncan, Keenleyside (originally High Arrow) and Mica dams in Canada affords the United States far more storage space, it also flooded farms and displaced residents. The treaty’s flood-control provisions therefore compensate Canada with half of the downstream power production – between $223 million and $335 million per year, depending on market prices.

“That’s called the Canadian entitlement,” Hansen said. “Canada is entitled to half of the action because the production is a result of the additional storage.”

As regulators evaluate the treaty, some believe it would be cheaper to cancel the provisions and, in the event of a heavy spring runoff, purchase additional storage space.

Hansen said the review process, which has just finished its first stage, has not determined whether there would be any saved costs.

Brian Marotz, a fisheries biologist with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who is representing the state on the sovereign review technical team, said terminating the provisions would put more pressure on Montana’s hydropower dams and reservoirs.

“One of the things that we stand to lose when these flood control provisions end is that it would put a great deal of pressure on Libby and Hungry Horse to draw down deeper for flood control. And if you draw down deeply, it puts more water into the river that is not consistent with normal conditions, so you have impacts to fish and wildlife,” he said. “If you terminate the treaty, then you lose all these great benefits that both countries receive from the cooperation. The best way to proceed is to modify and update the treaty and firm up the areas that are being questioned.”

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Montana has already taken steps to balance power generation, flood control and ecosystem functions by implementing what’s called the Montana Operation, which manipulates water flows so as to mimic natural, pre-dam conditions where fish reproduce naturally.

“The Montana Operation restores more natural functions to the river than any strategy that has ever been implemented at these dams,” Marotz said. “This is the best habitat for biological productivity in the rivers and reservoirs that we have ever seen, so that is what could be at stake from a biological perspective if we withdraw from the treaty and experience the impact of deeper drawdowns. We would take a giant step back from having more normal river operations that correspond with the needs of salmon, bull trout and sturgeon.”

“That is one of the elements that makes this of great interest to Montana,” he said. “We have two of the main tributaries with federal dams, so Montana has a lot at stake.”

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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