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No. 1 (217) February 2013


The delegation comprised of the representatives of foreign affairs ministries and water management organizations from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as regional organizations visited the city of Portland, USA from January 26 to February 2, 2013. The purpose of this visit was to learn about an experience from the United States and Canada in joint water management in the Columbia River system. This visit was initiated by the Executive Committee of IFAS and organized by a non-governmental organization, the U.S. Energy Association (USEA) with the support of the U.S. State Department and USAID. The program of the visit was focused on detailed examination of the Columbia River Treaty 1964 between the United States and Canada.

Columbia River Treaty: background

The Columbia River is one of the largest North American rivers. It is approximately 2000 km long from its headwaters at Columbia Lake to the estuary near Astoria, Oregon where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The river basin drainage covers 567,000 km2 in seven U.S. states and 102,300 km2 in British Columbia, Canada. The Kootenay River is the major tributary of the Columbia River. The Columbia River has an average annual runoff of 244 billion cubic meters.

The Columbia River Treaty grew out of two major challenges: devastating flooding and the need for more cheap electricity to support a growing economy and population in the Pacific Northwest.

The following major reasons had raised the need for construction of reservoirs in the upstream of the Columbia River basin:

  • Canada has 15% of the basin area, but produces, on average, 38% of the runoff for the total basin
  • 50% of worst Columbia flood flows (1894) at Portland came from Canada.
  • northern basins (Mica & Revelstoke) have highest and most consistent runoff; runoff in southern basins is lower and more uncertain.

Nine-year negotiations led to signing of Columbia River Treaty between Canada and USA in 1961, and the Treaty was put in force in 1964 after its ratification.

Involved organizations. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on the U.S. side and B.C. Hydro on the Canadian side. The meeting with the Central Asian delegation was organized at the North-Western office of USACE in Portland. The mandate of this office includes regulation of 77 dams and reservoirs, 29 HEPS and 1600 miles of navigation canals crossing 14 states and encompassing the largest U.S. rivers, such as Missouri and Columbia.

An International Joint Commission had played a key role in the development of the Treaty. This Commission submitted a report in 1959 that laid major principles for regulation of the Columbia River and determination and distribution of downstream benefits. However, after signing of the Treaty 1964, the International Joint Commission’s contribution was minor. Article 16 of the Treaty 1964 states that if the Parties cannot settle their disputes, they can submit them to the International Joint Commission for consideration; however, no such disputes arose in the course of the Treaty. The International Joint Commission is also not involved in the current review of the Treaty 1964 since the U.S. and Canada representatives think that the Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and ÁÑ Hydro have enough expert capacities and there is no need for involvement of additional entity in already multi-party process.

Obligations of Canada and the U.S. under Treaty 1964

The Treaty required Canada to:

  • construct three storage reservoirs (Mica, Arrow, and Duncan) on the Columbia River - 19.1 km³ (or 15.5 Maf),
  • operate these reservoirs for optimum power generation and flood control downstream in both countries. Canada should operate the projects built under the Treaty, according to an agreed monthly plan, but it has flexibility to operate individual dams on their own, provided that the general regulation meets the Treaty’s requirements and agreed flow is ensured at the border with the U.S.

The Treaty required the U.S. to:

  • pay Canada 50% of the estimated value of the future flood control benefits for 60 years
  • pay to Canada 50% of the increased hydropower generated un the U.S. as a result of construction of hydropower plants under the Treaty over 30 years (the so called “Canadian entitlement for downstream power benefits”).

The Treaty also allowed the U.S. to construct and operate the Libby project on the Kootenai River in Montana.

British Columbia, on behalf of Canada, sold the first 30 years of the Canadian Entitlement for $254 million and used the money to finance the construction of the three Columbia River Treaty dams. After completion of the three projects, the U.S. paid to Canada additional $64 million for flood control for the U.S. for 60 years (until 2024). The U.S. Corps of Engineers estimated that the Treaty storage prevented $200 of flood damages in 1972, 1974 and 1997.

By April 2003, the 30-year delivery of 50% of the increased power generation as a result of storage construction to Canada was completed, and all of the Canadian Entitlement energy and capacity now returns to the BC border.

Fish and ecosystems

The Treaty 1964 does not regulate the matters concerning maintenance of aquatic ecosystems and flow for fishes, but the Parties explore how to ensure those needs. Thus, The Treaty requires that an Assured Operating Plan (AOP) for Canadian Treaty storage be developed annually with the goal of achieving optimum power benefits and specified flood protection in Canada and the U.S. In addition, Treaty allows the authorized Entities to develop and implement Detailed Operating Plans (DOP) that produce results more advantageous to both countries. Entities have interpreted “more advantageous” to include fisheries, recreation, and other benefits in addition to power and flood control. Thus, DOP may include fisheries and ecosystem needs if agreed to by both countries.

Besides, it should be noted that on the basis of an Agreement between BPA and B.C. Hydro the countries use additional storage that is not governed by the Treaty 1964. This provides additional flexibility for power and non-power benefits. In recent years, non-Treaty storage has become an important part of BPA’s ability to shape flows for fisheries.

However, those measures are not enough since Canadian Entitlement deliveries are not affected or adjusted to reflect actual power benefits. The U.S. can choose to use the resulting water for fish, but the energy deliveries to Canada remain the same.

According to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, about $750 million is spent annually to keep reproduction of salmon and other anadromous fishes. Fish passages were constructed at all dams. Consequently, about two to four million adult fishes pass the Bonneville dam, where a site visit was organized, and 150 million juvenile fishes flow back to the ocean every year. It is interesting that full-grown fishes are counted visually in order to determine species and origin.

2014-2024 Treaty review

The Treaty 1964 has no end date. Either government has the option to cancel the Treaty after 60 years with 10 years’ advance notice. With termination:

  • Mica, Duncan, Arrow may continue to operate subject to the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
  • Canada must provide some flood control operation for the U.S. as long as the need exists and projects exist, but U.S. must pay Canada’s operating costs and power losses. However, according to this provision, no greater degree of flood control is provided after 2024 than prior to 2024.
  • Canada may continue any Kootenay Diversions (although this was not effected yet).

Current assured annual flood control operating procedures will end in 2024, regardless of whether the Treaty continues or is terminated.

There are three scenarios after 2024:

  1. continuation of the Treaty,
  2. termination of the Treaty,
  3. amendment of the Treaty.

Continuation of the Treaty 1964 would be the most beneficial option for Canada, but there is still no clarity regarding position and benefits of the U.S. It is thought in the U.S. that payments to Canada for flood control and power benefits should be reviewed and considerably reduced or these services provided by Canada should also include flows for fishes and ecosystems in downstream areas that are currently provided only by the U.S. Climate change also adds complexity, thus requiring more flexible regulation mechanism for the Columbia River basin (as one reporter noted, probably, only a short-term treaty would be signed in this context).

Currently detailed studies, including modeling of various scenarios, are conducted in order to evaluate reasonability of the continuation of the Treaty for the U.S. Particularly, studies are jointly conducted by USACE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) and BPA on behalf of the U.S. Entity in collaboration with 20 regional Sovereigns and stakeholders. Those Sovereigns include the U.S. Federal Government (11 Federal agencies), 4 states (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana), and 15 Native American Tribes. These studies consider four usages of the Columbia River’s waters as the main: ecosystem function; flood risk management; hydropower; and, water supply. Based on the conducted studies, USACE and BPA should give recommendations to the U.S. Department of State, which, in turn, will make a final decision about the Treaty 1964 future and will enter into negotiations with Canada, if necessary.


The both Parties think that the Treaty 1964 is a model document, which produced benefits for both Canada and the U.S. However, currently there is still no clarity regarding whether or not it is in the best interest of the countries to continue the Treaty (probably, with account of changed needs, including maintenance of ecosystem functions, and climate change) or terminate it and rely on their own capacities for achievement of the same objectives. In reviewing the Treaty, particular attention is given to more active involvement of Native Americans and the general public, which interests were not considered in development of the Treaty 1964. The lessons learnt from cooperation of the U.S. and Canada are of interest for the Central Asian countries, especially in part of benefits for all the countries from the use of basin’s water resources, including maintenance of ecosystem functions, and negotiation process organized on the basis of technical input and involvement of all stakeholders.