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Airing a treaty

idaho RANDY

When all the media “air” is used on the story of the day, even if major, just as government shutdown or health insurance websites, we tend to miss a lot of other things. In Idaho right now, a lot of people probably are missing something important to their future: The Columbia River Treaty.

This is a story still in development, and it won’t come to fruition until next year at the earliest, and maybe later. But it will have a good deal to do with how much water Idaho will have in years to come.

You may not have heard of the treaty, which would be testimony to its long-running quiet usefulness. The United States and Canada began discussions about the Columbia – its main stem originates in Canada – in the early 40s, after the New Deal construction of massive dams along the river on the south side of the border, and in a time when flooding was still a significant problem. In 1948 the then-second-largest community in Oregon, called Vanport (located near Portland), was wiped out by a Columbia River flood. Canada had river issues too, including requests by the United States to build dams in that country for flood control purposes, and negotiations began.

They were not easy. The treaty was not written and ratified until 1964, Since then, various developments agreed to (including more dam construction) has been undertaken. The treaty doesn’t have an expiration date, but it does say it can be renegotiated after 50 years. Early talks are underway, led on each side by an organizational combine called the Entity (sorry if this is sounding like a sci-fi movie). The U.S. Entity includes executives of the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The U.S. Entity has been seeking public comments, and has held public meetings around the region, including one in Boise on October 3. That round of hearings is over, though more may be held. Or not; the last requests for comments drew (as of October 18) only 20 from the whole region. (There’s a web site at The Entity is scheduled to deliver a proposal for the United States position on the treaty to the U.S. Department of State before the end of this year.

Both the Entity and the Canadian negotiators are looking at a number of possible alterations to the treaty, including some involving ecosystem restoration and increases of fish runs. That could affect the requirements for how much water flows through the Columbia system, requirements that both nations would have to live with.

As would the states south of the border that contribute to the river.

The Columbia River does not, of course, flow through Idaho. But the Columbia’s largest tributary, the Snake River, certainly does, and so do all of the smaller rivers in northern Idaho (such as the Spokane and the Coeur d’Alene), and all of those contribute to the Columbia’s flow. If requirements change for how much water has to flow through the Columbia south of the Tri-Cities in Washington, where the Snake and Columbia merge, that will undoubtedly affect Idaho.

Coming at a time when Idaho is wrapping up its massive Snake River Basin Adjudication, which has had the aim of specifying who can get what when the comes to the river basin’s water, the treaty should be under the Idaho magnifying lens.

One of those many reasons not to get too distracted by the story of the day.

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