The United States and Canada will begin negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty regime today. The 54-year-old treaty is an extremely important agreement with our best ally and partner in the hemisphere. Established in 1964, the treaty’s flood risk and hydropower operations have provided substantial benefits to millions of people on both sides of the border and facilitated additional benefits such as supporting the river’s ecosystem, irrigation, municipal water use, industrial use, navigation and recreation. The United States deeply values our unique and essential relationship with Canada.
Around the world, this treaty serves as a model for transboundary water cooperation—and rightly so. Americans and Canadians alike should be proud of the invaluable cooperation that has contributed to the development of the regional economy on both sides of the border.
But we don’t live in 1964. There is a whole swath of arrangements established under this durable yet flexible treaty that should be modernized. In both countries, our understanding of the river and the basin has changed since the development of the transboundary system with three treaty dams in British Columbia and one in Montana.
Last December we announced it is time to modernize the Columbia River Treaty regime. That’s shorthand for the treaty and the myriad technical mechanisms and arrangements that translate the agreement into day-to-day realities. It is in many of these details where the United States wants to see improvements. As the United States enters into bilateral negotiations with our Canadian counterparts, our objectives include continued, careful management of flood risk; ensuring a reliable and economical power supply; and better addressing ecosystem concerns.
The U.S. negotiating team set these objectives with input from the people most directly affected by the treaty. On the U.S. side, the starting point is the U.S. Entity Regional Recommendation for the Future of the Columbia River Treaty after 2024, a consensus document released in 2013 after five years of consultations among the Northwest’s tribes, states, stakeholders, public and federal agencies. Since the submission of the regional recommendation, the State Department has continued to meet with and hear from the sovereigns, states and stakeholders within the region. The U.S. negotiating team deeply values the expertise and experience of the tribes and will continue to consult with them on a regular basis as negotiations proceed. We are committed to keeping our American partners informed of our progress during the negotiations.
As we begin active negotiations with our Canadian neighbors, we will hold town halls throughout the region to hear views from the public on the process and the Treaty. The first town hall took place in Spokane on April 24 on the margins of the Lake Roosevelt Forum and included an open question and answer session for the public. We plan to hold the next town hall later this summer.
Good treaties make good neighbors. The United States and Canada have a long, positive history of engagement on the Columbia River. We expect to continue that cooperative spirit when we engage in negotiations starting today.
Francisco L. Palmieri is a career diplomat and currently serves as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. He has spent over 31 years representing the United States at home and on assignments abroad.