The Columbia River Treaty is an international agreement between Canada and the United States for the cooperative development and operation of Columbia River Basin water resources to reduce the effect of floods and to increase dependable and usable amounts of hydropower generation. It was signed in 1961 and implemented in 1964. After September 15, 2024, Canada and the United States each had the option to terminate most of the Treaty provisions by providing a 10-year advance written notice.
While the costs and benefits are borne by all Pacific Northwest utility customers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) represent the United States as the U.S. Entity and work in concert with the State Department and National Security Council in official Treaty discussions with Canada. The Corps operates federal dams in the Columbia River Basin and BPA markets federal hydropower to regional utilities. Neither BPA nor the Corps represents the interests of utilities that purchase federal hydropower, operators of non-federal hydropower facilities directly affected by the Treaty, or other river users. The Power Group was formed to ensure that Northwest electricity customers would have their interests represented in the Treaty review process.
The earliest the Treaty could have been terminated was 2024. However, neither country has given notice, so the 10-year window between notice and termination has not been initiated. Meanwhile, current Treaty flood control operations, which provide significant benefits to the United States, will expire in September 2024. Terms and conditions for ongoing flood control will need to be renegotiated, regardless of whether the Treaty is terminated or not.
U.S. operations of the Columbia River system for fisheries management have significantly reduced the original downstream power benefits of the Treaty. If the Treaty continues without modification, U.S. power utilities will be obligated to continue delivering the Canadian Entitlement (a continuous power and energy delivery to the Canadian government), paid for by Northwest electricity customers. Already this obligation has continued five years longer than necessary because the Treaty notice was not issued in 2014.
Construction of Columbia River Treaty storage projects, which impound flows destined for the lower reaches of the Columbia River, have allowed for management of downstream flood risk and were intended to optimize the timing of stream flows to enhance power generation at downstream projects. The Columbia River Treaty has operated for 55 years and has now fulfilled a primary purpose; that is, it raised financing in the United States for construction of the Treaty storage projects in Canada.
There has been substantial analysis of the Treaty conducted by the U.S. Entity and others. As power utilities serving people throughout the Northwest, we are uniquely interested in the future of the Columbia River Treaty.
Based upon an extensive analysis of downstream power benefits by BPA, the remaining benefit of coordinated operations is minimal, while the costs imposed under the existing Treaty protocols is high. BPA has forecasted the Canadian Entitlement payment in 2025 using existing methodologies to be 450 aMW with about 1,300 MW of capacity. Yet, the Power Group estimates the actual benefits to be 90 aMW and 0 (zero) MW of capacity. This equates to a Canadian Entitlement payment of 45 aMW or a ten-fold decrease in actual value.