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Loading up at Pomeroy Grain Growers in Central Ferry on the Snake River last fall.
Photo by Resa Cox

COAXIUM

CLS

POLICY

Powered by water

August/September 2018
By Trista Crossley


In a very literal sense, the Columbia River System fuels life in the Pacific Northwest—growers rely on it to water their crops, and residents depend on it to help power their homes and businesses. As Columbia River Treaty (CRT) renegotiations between the U.S. and Canada continue, two more industries with distinctly different vested interests are closely watching.

Watts up?

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a nonprofit federal agency that markets wholesale electrical power from 31 federal hydroelectric dams throughout the Columbia River Basin, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River and Lower Granite and Ice Harbor dams on the Snake River. Created in 1937, BPA currently provides approximately 28 percent of the electricity used across 300,000 square miles in eight western states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. It also owns more than 15,000 miles of transmission lines and employs almost 3,000 people full time. While there are other power generating companies who are directly impacted by the CRT, BPA is arguably the biggest, not only in terms of size, but also because it is directly responsible for fulfilling one of the basic conditions of the treaty, the Canadian Entitlement.

As part of the CRT, Canada agreed to build three dams that, along with a new dam in Montana, would nearly double storage capacity on the river system and provide flood control benefits by improving the ability to regulate water flows throughout the system. That regulated flow also helped increase the United States’ power generating ability. Under the treaty’s terms, both countries were to share those power benefits equally. Canada’s share of the power and capacity is known as the Canadian Entitlement, which is estimated to be worth $250 to $350 million a year. BPA is largely responsible for administering the power sent to British Columbia, which turns around and resells the power to both Canadian and U.S. customers.

According to a CRT review fact sheet published by the U.S. Entity, which is the entity responsible for implementing the treaty on the U.S. side, the U.S. believes that by 2024, it will have fully compensated Canada’s contribution to storage and flood control. Furthermore, according to the fact sheet, the coordinated CRT storage options are worth $26 million a year. In 2013, the U.S. Entity published a regional recommendation on the treaty that advocated for modernizing the CRT, including rebalancing the Canadian Entitlement. The regional recommendation forms the basis of the United State’s position in renegotiating the CRT. The fact sheet and the regional recommendation are available at crt2014-2024review.gov.

All in all, it’s hard to miss the impact the CRT has had on the Pacific Northwest’s power generating industry and BPA in particular.

“I would say the treaty, particularly when it came into play in the 1960s, was very important,” said Kieran Connolly, vice president of generation asset management for BPA. Connolly is also part of the U.S. team that is renegotiating the CRT. “We lived in a world at that time where the ability to move power around the system was quite limited. The treaty made water flow in the Columbia River more usable from a power production standpoint.”

Because of the Canadian Entitlement, Canada is essentially a customer of BPA, which influences how BPA plans and operates the hydroelectric system. The company must balance the entitlement with the needs of its other customers. According to their records, in 2017/18, BPA sent an average of 475 megawatts north every hour. To put that in perspective, one average megawatt is enough energy to power 730 typical Northwest homes.

“The Canadian Entitlement is a return of energy and flexible capacity to Canada in compensation for their facilities. We have to treat that as a load, and we take that very seriously,” Connolly explained. “ It is an important part of our planning given that it is a very substantial component that we have there.”

Connolly agreed that the Canadian Entitlement is a concern and that the U.S. negotiating team will be considering multiple ways to address it. Canadian officials have said they need a better accounting of the benefits the U.S. gets from the water storage north of the U.S. border.

“Those benefits we get from the regulation of water relative to the compensation is currently out of equity. We want to bring that back into an equitable state,” Connolly said, adding that the partnership with the Canadians has been productive despite not always agreeing on everything. “We are going to have conversations about what is the right operation for the future, and what is the right way to share those benefits.”

One of the aspects of the CRT that has multiple stakeholders concerned is what happens after 2024 if the treaty isn’t successfully renegotiated. In that case, water storage and release relies on the U.S. maximizing its storage capabilities before “calling upon” Canada for assistance. Nobody is quite certain how that type of system would work or cost. Connolly said it is unclear what the impacts of “calling upon” Canada would be on BPA.

“In general, flood management is a complementary activity to efficient power production. We all work on a draft and refill cycle of projects. ‘Called upon’ would be a different way of approaching that, but it’s primarily a flood control thing,” he said.

All pumped up

While “called upon” might not be the issue BPA is most concerned about, irrigation districts across the Columbia Basin are, even if they don’t pump water directly from the Columbia River. Scott Revell, district manager for the Roza Irrigation District, worries that he might have to draw down U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs to provide storage space ahead of a spring runoff that may or may not deliver. If runoff can’t replace that water, there’s the risk of not having enough water later in the summer for irrigators such as Roza, the Kittitas Reclamation District or parts of the Wapato Irrigation Project that do not have senior water rights.

“The Canadians have taken the position that any storage in the Columbia Basin needs to be used for flood control. I think it’s a big deal to us because in a water-short basin that is also storage short, releasing precious stored water to minimize downstream flood control might not be replaced with runoff every year. We don’t want to unnecessarily burn any storage capacity, and the information we have been given to date indicates that all of the combined storage in Yakima is barely noticeable for flood control in the lower Columbia River,” he explained.

The Roza Irrigation District uses surface water from the Yakima River, as well as water from five reservoirs. In total, there is 1 million acre feet worth of storage with an average yearly demand of 2.4 million acre feet in the Yakima Basin. Revell said he’d like to see his irrigation district maximized for stored water for irrigation rather than flood control.

“Growers, hands down, would say don’t unnecessarily release water,” he said.

A little farther north, Craig Simpson, district manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), is also keeping his eyes on the “called upon” issue, primarily in how it might affect water levels in Lake Roosevelt, which is used for flood control under the current treaty. ECBID pumps water from Lake Roosevelt into Banks Lake where it is stored for use on lands developed under the Columbia Basin Project.

“They draft Lake Roosevelt deeply on years with expected high runoff, which makes a certain number of our pumps not available,” Simpson said. “So if you get a high runoff year but a hot summer, now you’re getting into the issue of having more demand out of Banks Lake than can be pumped into it.”

Simpson’s district encompasses much of the remaining undeveloped land—400,000 acres—in the Columbia Basin Project (CBP). And while they haven’t maximized the storage in Banks Lake yet, he is concerned about having the capacity to supply water if and when those lands are developed.

Another concern of Simpson’s regarding future development of the CBP is working with Canada to make ecological water decisions if and when the ECBID decides to act on more of the water rights stored behind Grand Coulee Dam for the CBP.

“We have a storage certificate that allows us to store the water, but to divert water from the river requires a secondary use permit that triggers compliance with the Endangered Species Act. We are interested in how any future agreement would allow us access to more storage in Canada to offset those concerns,” he said.

Unlike the Roza and East Columbia Basin irrigation districts, the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District draws water directly from the Columbia River, as well as from twelve wells adjacent to the river.

“If they raise the river up, it benefits us. When they lower it, it causes issues,” said Michael Miller, district manager for the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District. Miller is also concerned about the “called upon” issue and the potential drawdown behind dams in order to provide flood control. He got a first-hand glimpse of the potential impact a few years ago when issues with Wanapum Dam required its pool to be drawn down. Some of the district’s pumps were left above the water line. Additionally, because the district’s wells are on the same aquifer as the river, those levels also dropped, resulting in thousands of dollars in damage to one of the well pumps.

“The current treaty has helped develop the way people watered (in the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District). We’ve always had water throughout summer. We don’t have periods where we can’t pump because of the river going low,” he added. “I think that’s the main kicker. If we are going to do “called upon,” we need to make sure we don’t go down enough (in the pools) that we can’t run the pumps. And if they do draw down the water, even if we can still use the pumps, you can imagine that pumps pump more efficiently if there’s more water standing on them.” Miller also hopes that if the Canadian Entitlement is redrawn to be more favorable to the U.S., it might reduce the irrigation district’s electricity rates, which have been steadily creeping upwards.

Editor’s note: The first article in this series, which ran in the July 2018 issue of Wheat Life, focused on the transportation and navigation industries, and how they have been affected by the Columbia River Treaty. You can download that issue at wheatlife.org/pastissues.html.