Water: law/policy/politics/ethics/art/science

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CRT: 18 Conservation Groups Ask for Ecosystem Restoration and Fish Passage

Update August 30:  Eighteen conservation and good government groups sent letters to the U.S. Entity asking that an updated Columbia River Treaty include ecosystem restoration as a third and co-equal purpose (along with hydropower and flood control).  Here are a few salient excerpts, followed by the letters:

Dr. Mindy Smith, Citizens for a Clean Columbia:

It is time to establish true watershed management for this area, in consideration of past damages and climate change, and include the perspectives of those of us who live along the Upper Columbia River. In closing, the CCC board members urge the US entity to continue to make this process transparent and allow public review of supporting deliberative documentation, including technical appendices.

Pat Ford & Joseph Bogaard, Save Our wild Salmon Coalition and Sara Patton, Northwest Energy Coalition:

Save Our wild Salmon’s fishing, fishing business and conservation groups, whose combined members include some 6 million Americans, seek to restore Columbia and Snake Basin salmon for use by people and ecosystems.  NW Energy Coalition, with more than 110 member groups spanning environmental, civic and human-service organizations, progressive utilities and businesses in ID, MT, WA, OR and BC, promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy, consumer and low-income protections, and restoration of fish and wildlife affected by Northwest power production.

The Working Draft recommendation falls short of the changes needed to modernize the Columbia River Treaty so it helps ensure ecosystem health, public health, and economic health for Northwest people for the coming decades.  The 1964 Treaty is insufficient to the challenges of the Basin’s next 50 years, and the Working Draft’s thrust to largely ratify the outdated “two uses only” focus [hydropower and flood control] of the old Treaty, and to emphasize financial over substantive changes, is not in our region’s, or the Columbia Basin’s, interest.

Debrah Marriott, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership:

Broader dialog with more diverse interests needs to be added to have the discussion and decisions reflect regional values and needs, including conservation, alternative energy, fish passage through upper dams, coordinated storage in Canada, no-structural flood management, the economy, tourism and recreation, strategic levee modification, navigation, commerce, industry, agricultural and cultural impacts.

Click on the group’s name to access its letter.

American Rivers

Aqua Permanenté

Center for Environmental Law & Policy

Citizens for a Clean Columbia

Columbia Institute for Water Policy

Columbia Land Trust

Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs

Idaho Rivers United

League of Women Voters of Idaho

League of Women Voters of Oregon

League of Women Voters of Washington

Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership

Northwest Energy Coalition

Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association

Pacific Rivers Council

Save Our Wild Salmon

Sierra Club

WaterWatch of Oregon

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CRT: 3,200 citizens ask U.S. to restore Columbia River ecosystem

The Columbia River Treaty is in motion.  While U.S. and Canadian diplomats won’t start talking until 2014, U.S. agencies are asking citizens what they want to see in a new treaty.  And the resounding response is: ecosystem restoration, fish passage, clean energy, and fair and transparent governance.

In response to an August 16 deadline, more than 3,200 members of Sierra Club, Save Our Wild Salmon, Oregon WaterWatch, Idaho Rivers United, and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy weighed in.  They  offered their opinions to Bonneville Power and the Corps of Engineers that a modernized treaty must prioritize ecosystem restoration as a new and co-equal purpose for Columbia River dams.  And, it is time to work toward fish passage to restore salmon to the upper Columbia River in the U.S. (e.g., the Spokane River) and British Columbia.

The U.S. agencies will be refining recommendations for a new round of public comment starting around September 19.  Stay tuned and get ready.

However, let us not be deceived.  The electric utilities and water users are demanding more out of the river, including that there be no further efforts or money spent to restore salmon and ecosystem function.  Look for our upcoming post on “Power Politics.”

Meanwhile, here are a few excerpts from the many inspiring comments:

From Judge Mary Pearson:

I’m not a scientist, nor a hydroelectric engineer, but I know that the dams have decimated the salmon and that this has been an ongoing fact.  Some of the dams need to be breached.  Others need to at least install modern, workable, and reliable bypasses for the returning salmon as well as devising a faster, easier, and safer way to get the smolts to the ocean.  If a pneumatic tube can be created to transport man from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a few minutes, it can do the same for the salmon.

From Ms./Mr. Finley:

“No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man,” (Heraclitus, circa 535-475 BC.)

I submit that the Columbia is not the same river it was back in 1964, when global warming and climate change were interesting if debatable theories, fracking was not exactly a household word, and residents of the Pacific Northwest gloried in our land’s cheap electricity, its beauty and seemingly forever adequate natural resources. We are not the same people as we were in the ’60’s. Hopefully new concerns of which we were barely aware in 1964 will be addressed and experience and education will give us wisdom to make protection of the environment our top priority. Thank you for the opportunity to submit a comment.

From Prof. Barbara Cosens of the University of Idaho, on behalf of the Universities Consortium on Columbia River Governance:

 The following comments are based on issues raised by stakeholders either in interviews done by students or in symposia held by the UCCRG. . . .

(2) Although the draft mentions possible attention to a program to reconnect areas of floodplain to the river, this does not go nearly as far as comments by stakeholders suggest it should. Model runs indicate that flood control at 450 cfs primarily through use of a limited list of dams is the major constraint on the system and makes it difficult to balance tradeoffs between power and fish. Stakeholders have raised that serious consideration should be given to raising the target risk level, doing a cost/benefit analysis of potential flood damage to determine what that higher risk should be, spreading flood control implementation to all federal dams in the system – not just those with current flood control authorization, and serious study of non-structural measures for flood risk management.

And, from Kayla L. Godowa-Tufti, member of the Warm Springs Tribe:

Hydropower, to those who have fished and lived along our river since time immemorial, has come at the expense of our entire unique cultural identities. When the dams were constructed our villages, thousand year old fishing sites and burial sites were drowned by the closing of the iron gates.

Currently, as has been reported, many of these dams are now outdated, leaking contaminants into the river and at high risk for breakage. In this critical age of climate change, in the event of a flood, could these dams withstand the pressure from these waters?

I have also been made aware of the current state of the largest environmental clean up project in the world, Hanford, and its leakage of high level radioactive waste into the soil and river. Radioactive waste leakage, floods, along with the out dated dams and their risk of breakage, these accumulative factors could be fatal. I cannot help but think of Fukushima. I do not want my home to be uninhabitable. So, I am challenging our nation, the United States, to honor our treaties and prioritize salmon and river health.

A collective vision is developing for upcoming change on the Columbia River.

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CRT: Ecosystem Function Defined

Columbia Plateau Seasonal Round, from Prof. Eugene Hunn (Em.), Univ. of Washington

Fifteen Native American Tribes inhabit, own reservations, exercise treaty and executive order rights, and manage natural resources in the Columbia River watershed in the United States.  The Tribes understood the opportunities presented by upcoming changes to the Columbia River Treaty.  In response, they adopted a consensus statement of goals and sought and obtained equal participation as part of the U.S. Entity’s Sovereign Review Team, which is tasked with making recommendations to the U.S. Department of State regarding modernizing the Treaty.  Reporter Jack McNeel’s July 25, 2013 Indian Country Today article describes the role of the Tribes in this process.

One of the chief goals of the Tribes is to update the Treaty by adding a third purpose:  ecosystem-based function.  This goal goes far beyond simply operating the Columbia hydropower system to meet Endangered Species Act requirements.  More than a dozen major environmental, clean energy and good government groups endorsed these concepts in comments submitted to the U.S. Entity last week.  See post of August 14 (updated Aug. 18) “Conservation Groups Weigh In.”

With permission, the Columbia River Tribes’ definition of “ecosystem-based function” is re-printed here.  This statement gives insight into just how badly the Columbia River ecosystem is damaged, and what is needed to bring it back to health.  Actions such as improved instream flows, flood plain reconnection and fish passage are essential to achieve river restoration.  (Each of these activities is a big topic in its own right, and will be addressed in detail in future Naiads posts.)

Columbia Basin Tribes’ Definition of Ecosystem-based Function

Since time immemorial, the rivers of the Columbia Basin have been, and continue to be, the life blood of the Columbia Basin tribes.  Columbia Basin Tribes view ecosystem-based function of the Columbia Basin watershed as its ability to provide, protect and nurture cultural resources, traditions, values and landscapes throughout its length and breadth.  Clean and abundant water that is sufficient to sustain healthy populations of fish, wildlife, and plants is vital to holistic ecosystem-based function and life itself.  A restored, resilient and healthy watershed will include ecosystem-based function such as:

  • Increased spring and summer flows resulting in a more natural hydrograph;
  • Higher and more stable headwater reservoir levels;
  • Restoring and maintaining fish passage to historical habitats;
  • Higher river flows during dry years;
  • Lower late summer water temperature;
  • Reconnected floodplains throughout the river including a reconnected lower river estuary ecosystem as well as reduced salt water intrusion during summer and fall;
  • Columbia River plume and near shore ocean enhanced through higher spring and summer flows and lessened duration of hypoxia;
  • An adaptive and flexible suite of river operations responsive to a great variety of changing environmental conditions, such as climate change.

Improved ecosystem-based function in the Columbia Basin Watershed is expected to result in at least:

  • Increased recognition, protection and preservation of tribal first foods and cultural/sacred sites and activities.  First foods includes water, salmon, other fish, wildlife, berries, roots, and other native medicinal plants.
  • An estuary with an enhanced food web and increased juvenile fish survival;
  • Increases in juvenile and adult salmon survival;
  • Decreased mainstem travel time for migrating juvenile salmon;
  • Increased resident fish productivity that provides stable, resilient populations;
  • Increased wildlife productivity that provides stable, resilient populations;
  • Salmon and other juvenile and adult fish passage to historical habitats in the Upper Columbia and Snake River basins, and into other currently blocked parts of the Columbia River Basin.

From Initial Perspectives of the Columbia Basin Tribes for the Recommendations to the Department of State Regarding the Columbia River Treaty Review,” Appendix A, May 29, 2013

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Columbia River Treaty: U.S. Seeks Comments on Draft Recommendations

The two U.S. federal agencies tasked with implementing the Columbia River Treaty – Bonneville Power Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers – have also been directed to review the Treaty and make recommendations to the U.S. Department of State regarding potential re-negotiation terms.

The two agencies, which are collectively known as the U.S. Entity, have published a Cover Letter and Working Draft Recommendations and are asking for public comment by August 16.   Based on this first round of comments, a second draft will be published for public review in September.  The U.S. Entity’s goal is to deliver a set of final recommendation to the State Department in December 2013.

While the U.S. Entity has made great strides, the draft recommendations are not strong enough.   The Columbia Institute for Water Policy sent a letter this week explaining the shortcomings.  The U.S. Entity needs to hear the following:

(1) Ecosystem Function.  The United States must unequivocally pursue a new, third, purpose in the next version of the Columbia River Treaty:   Ecosystem Function.   This purpose must be co-equal to the existing purposes of power generation and flood control.   This purpose must embrace restoration of the Columbia River and not simply adopt the status quo of Endangered Species Act compliance.

(2) Fish Passage.  The United States must negotiate with Canada to create a plan to return salmon to the British Columbia portion of the basin.  In other words, fish passage at Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams needs to be made a reality.  As a practical matter, Canada will likely be more willing to revisit benefits sharing if it actually gets a benefit.

(3) Green Power.  The old Treaty sends half of the extra power that is generated in the U.S. as a result of the Canadian dams back to British Columbia and its power corporation, B.C. Hydro.  In the future, the calculation of power benefits must include consideration of conservation and renewable energy sources – and thus promote carbon-free energy production.   The existing “Hydropower” purpose of the Treaty must be expanded to “Green Power.”  This is full consistent with the NW Power Council’s Sixth Power Plan, which concluded the Pacific NW can meet the next 20 years’ demand for electricity through conservation and renewable sources.

(4) Updated Flood Management.  The Corps of Engineers manages the Columbia River to reduce flood risk – that’s good.  But the current flood protocols are extremely conservation, and limit creative solutions that would help improve ecosystem function.   The Corps needs to reconsider its flood control operations for the Columbia River.

See the Columbia Institute’s letter for more comments regarding the Working Draft Recommendations.

You can send in your comments to

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Columbia River Treaty – Bring Back the Fish

Once in a lifetime opportunity.   Sounds like a sales pitch, but it’s true.

The Columbia River Treaty – an agreement between the United States and Canada on how to manage the heavily dammed Columbia River — is up for re-negotiation.

Grand Coulee Dam (photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Grand Coulee Dam – lynchpin of the Columbia hydropower system  (photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

As that re-negotiation gets closer, a window is opening on a whole new way of thinking about the Columbia watershed.   It offers the chance to re-think how floods are managed, how power is generated, and who benefits.

And most importantly, it offers the chance to reimagine the Columbia River as a whole ecosystem.  Can we operate dams in both the U.S. and British Columbia to optimize salmon restoration?   Should we install fish passage at Grand Coulee Dam (and Chief Joseph dam just downstream) to allow the fish to return to the upper Columbia River – in Canada and the U.S.?   (Salmon swam all the way to the headwaters — 1200 miles to the Columbia River Wetlands — until the gates closed at Grand Coulee in 1942.)  Can floods be managed in a more eco-friendly manner?  Should conservation and renewable power be part of the calculation of power benefits in the region?

The answer to these questions is yes.  It is time to bring back the fish, restore the river, honor the treaties with tribes, and thoroughly modernize our approach to managing Nch’i-Wana, the Big River, the Columbia.  That may mean taking a step back in time to allow the river to be a river – rather than trying to engineer our way out of every problem.

The Columbia River Treaty as a document is not hugely complicated.  But the history of the River and how it’s currently managed is quite complex.  As ever, lots of different people and PUDs and cities and irrigation districts want a piece of it.   As the two countries engage in pre-negotiation treaty review, interest groups are emerging.   Pre-positioning is underway – most notably in the U.S. water supply sector.

This blog will endeavor to provide a public interest perspective on Columbia River Treaty happenings across the watershed, in both the U.S. and Canada.  Here you’ll find links to key websites and documents that illuminate what’s going on, along with analysis of what it all means.   Future posts will address the players, the science, the history, the politics, the art and the poetry of the Columbia River.  Stay tuned.

Your comments and information are welcome.