Renewed U.S.-Canada Columbia River dam treaty will elevate ecosystem issues

YAKIMA, Wash. — A U.S.-Canada treaty that governs operations of the fourth-largest river in North America — affecting everything from power prices and water supplies to grain shipments and recreation in the Pacific Northwest — should be renegotiated to make the system more flexible amid climate change and to aid threatened and endangered species that weren't considered when the treaty was created decades ago, federal regulators recommended in a draft document released to The Associated Press.

However, the document also says efforts to improve the ecosystem should not impair often competing efforts to ensure long-enjoyed low power prices in the region, which are made possible by 11 U.S. hydropower dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Bill Dobbins, general manager of the Douglas County Public Utility District, which operates Wells Dam in Washington state, said the proposal to increase river flows in the spring, when it would help young salmon migrating to the ocean, would lead to less power production from the dams. Generators are already operating at capacity then, wind farms are producing power that competes for space on the grid, and the water will end up being spilled over the dams, rather than held in reserve for fall and winter.

He added that it remained unclear what adding the term "ecosystem function" to the treaty would mean for dam operations, and how the proposals would be funded.

Originating high in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, the Columbia River flows 1,240 miles through Canada and the United States to its mouth in the Pacific Ocean. Its drainage area crosses both countries and touches seven U.S. states, and its average annual runoff dwarfs the Colorado and Missouri rivers.

The runoff was deadly on Memorial Day 1948: Spring runoff from a melting heavy snowpack pushed the river over its banks far downstream in Oregon, killing more than 30 people and destroying the community of Vanport. Economic losses exceeded $100 million.

The disaster started negotiations between the U.S. and Canada for better management of the river's dams and reservoirs, both for flood control and hydropower generation. The ensuing treaty, signed in 1964, has no expiration date, but either country may cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years' notice.

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