Letters From the West

Idaho WaterUsers, Idaho Rivers United both fear Idaho water grab

Its rare when the Idaho WaterUser’s Association and Idaho Rivers United agree on something.

Its even rarer when the agreement is over management of the Columbia and Snake River system. But a review of the Columbia Basin Treaty, first negotiated in 1961 has both groups worried about what it is going to mean to Idaho’s rivers and control over its water.

The Columbia River Treatycolumbiamap allowed Canada to build three dams on the Columbia system to provide flood control and allowed the United States to build a dam on the Kootenai River in Montana, with a reservoir that reaches 42 miles across the northern border.

The treaty came after the 1948 flood destroyed Vanport, Oregon. The deal doubled the storage capacity on the system and dramatically increased hydroelectric power. The United States through the Bonneville Power Administration paid the Canadians in money and electricity that today is worth from $250 million to $350 million a year.

The treaty runs until 2024 but can be renegotiated at any time with 10 years notice. Canada did that in 2004 and the talks are scheduled for 2014.

“Canada has taken the position that, beginning in 2024, the existing Treaty requires that all storage projects in the Columbia River Basin are to be used for system flood control whether or not they were authorized for that purpose by Congress,” said Norm Semanko, Idaho WaterUsers executive director.

He said the Canadian government specifically called attention to reservoirs above Brownlee Dam such as the Boise, Payette, Owyhee and Upper Snake projects.

“Obviously, changing the operation of Bureau of Reclamation irrigation projects for system flood control, not just local flood control, would have dramatic impacts on irrigation water supply and every other use of water here at home,” Semanko said.

Liz Paul, of Idaho Rivers United said the flood control only would be for Portland, which Brownlee Reservoir already is used. She worries federal dam managers would “confiscate” space in reservoirs like Lucky Peak to help protect Portland that would force them to cut off flows in the Boise River to the detriment of fish and river health.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been uninterested in looking at what can be done in Portland to reduce its flood risk and instead immediately looked up stream,” Paul said.

The treaty talks inherently turn into an upstream-downstream issue that outweighs ideological and even environmental issues. The Columbia tribes, who were not a party to the treaty, want to talk about ecosystem restoration. Downstream irrigation farmers and other users want to buy more water from Canada.

Federal officials are holding 14 meetings across the Pacific Northwest to gauge public opinion on the treaty. The Boise meeting will be at the Hampton Inn on Capitol Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West