Columbia River Treaty negotiations and local implications

By Tracy McNew


Formal international negotiations between the U.S. Department of State and Canada began on May 29 of this year to modernize the Columbia River Treaty (CRT).

If you are wondering why this matters to us, Representative Mike Cuffe has the answer to your question. In a letter to the editor, he said “My mission is to have Montana concerns included in the modernization of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty.”

Cuffe has been working to represent Montana’s interests related to the CRT since talks of renegotiation began in 2011.

The Kootenai River, which flows 485 miles from Canada through Montana and Idaho and then back into Canada is a tributary of the Columbia River, he explained.

Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa were constructed as a result of the CRT, and the Kootenai Valley  villages of Rexford and Warland were submerged to build them.

The CRT was signed in 1961 and implemented in 1968. Three other dams were also constructed in Canada as part of the CRT.

Since implementation in 1968, flood control concerns and power demands in the Columbia River Basin, which includes northwest Montana, have been effectively addressed, so the CRT has fulfilled its purpose, but Montana doesn’t receive the benefits we deserve, Cuffe said.

Renegotiations started because in 2024 the CRT’s terms are set to change. Canada’s assured annual water storage for flood control will automatically expire if the CRT is not renewed, and either country will be able to end the treaty with ten years notice.

Stakeholders began examining the terms of the treaty and both countries have now agreed that modernization is needed, but there is no guarantee that Cuffe’s two primary concerns for Montana will be include in the negotiations or resulting treaty so he continues to make his voice heard on the issue whenever possible.

The first concern, Cuffe says, is related to downstream power benefits. Downstream power benefits refer to power that can be generated in the U.S. as a result of Canadian storage. Under the current terms of the CRT, British Columbia receives $200- $300 million U.S. in downstream power benefits annually.

Since Libby Dam stores water just as the Canadian dams do, power can also be generated downstream as a result. Cuffe says that Montana deserves income from downstream power benefits too.

The second problem, Cuffe points out, is that Canada has the right to divert about ¼ of the Kootenai River’s water away from Montana and Lake Koocanusa. This option, Cuffe says, should be eliminated.

Canada has never diverted the water, but if they did, it would severely impact ecosystems, increase selenium contamination levels, hurt recreation opportunities and property values, decrease power generation and negatively influence other factors as well.

In June, at the Montana Republican Platform Convention, Cuffe proposed a resolution which was passed unanimously. The resolution calls for compensation for Montana through the Columbia River Treaty and also requests to eliminate the right for Canadians to divert 25 percent of the annual Kootenai River volume into the Columbia River.

This is a start, but there is a long road ahead. CRT negotiations could take years because of the large number of diverse interests that negotiators must consider.

Lead negotiators will present current perspectives on CRT negotiations at an upcoming Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) summit which will be held in Spokane on July 25.

PNWER is considered to have “the Gold Standard reputation” for Canada– U.S. relations, said Cuffe in an email to The Montanian. He serves as PNWER’s Vice President and  chair of the working group on cross boarder relations, so he will be as involved as possible in CRT discussions.

The next meeting between treaty negotiators from both countries is scheduled for August and it will not include Cuffe or PNWER, but Montana’s interests are sure to be known as a result of Cuffe’s ongoing efforts.

Cuffe has been serving in the Montana House of Representatives for seven years. His term will expire in 2019 and he is not eligible for reelection to the House because of term limits. He is the Republican candidate for the District 1 Montana State Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Chas Vincent. No matter the election outcome, Cuffe will be likely to continue his work representing Montana’s interests in CRT negotiations to the best of his abilities.

(picture) Representative Mike Cuffe presented to the Rotary Club of Kootenai Valley during their lunch meeting on Monday, July 2. He discussed his involvement with and recommendations for Columbia River Treaty negotiations and what impacts the treaty could have for local stakeholders.