Guest Commentary: Columbia River treaty talks need our attention
-August 30th, 2018
While most of our attention in the Pacific Northwest these days is on trade wars, tariffs, and wildfires, there are critical talks underway between the U.S. and Canada over future allocations of the Columbia River system’s water.
The two countries are renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty, which went into effect in 1964. It is a 50-year agreement. A new agreement would begin in 2024.
At the time of its initial ratification, the Columbia River Treaty focused on two primary purposes: flood control and power generation. It was intended to control flood waters such as those that wiped out Vanport, Ore., in the 1940s and bring low cost electricity to the region. Today, there is a wider array of issues on the table.
For example, since 1960, the combined population of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia has grown from 7.6 million to more than 19.5 million people. Our exploding population growth shows no signs of slowing.
In December, the U.S. Census Bureau found Idaho’s population boomed by 2.2 percent over the last year. Idaho led the nation in percent of population growth during that period. Right behind was Washington, at 1.7 percent.
Our expanding population means many communities along the rivers have greater residential, industrial, and commercial water requirements. Simply, more people need more pure, fresh water.
Water conservation can help offset the need for new supplies and should be part of the new agreement.
For example, as irrigated agriculture expands, new irrigation sprinkler systems are much more efficient requiring much less water. They apply water to crops at the best time and places; and in the needed amounts. Nelson Irrigation Inc. is a world leader in water conserving sprinkler technology and manufactures its products in Walla Walla, Wash.
Washington State University estimates that irrigated agriculture, including grapes for the wine industry, comprises some 60 crops that add up to two-thirds of the state’s agriculture and bring in some $3 billion in revenue annually. Today, about 5.1 million acres are irrigated with water from the Columbia River and its tributaries.
In Washington, hydropower has supplied more than 70 percent of our electricity. It is low cost, reliable power which makes irrigated agriculture, semiconductor manufacturers, internet server farms, Boeing, and other electricity-intensive industries competitive.
Likewise, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers estimated “barging on the inland Columbia Snake River System moves, on average, approximately 10 million tons of cargo valued at over $3 billion each year. Forty percent of the nation’s wheat transits through this system.”
Restoration of salmon and steelhead runs need to be a primary focus point. The differences between commercial, sports, and tribal fishermen—and biologists—are deep, but not insurmountable.
Hopefully, as the talks continue, the tone will remain constructive. There is lots at stake for both of our economies, environment and ways of life.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if, at the end of the negotiations, the outcomes find common support? There is a desperate need for rational discussion among people who actually listen.
Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist, and former president and CEO of the Association of Washington Business, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.