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 Columbia and Klamath River Dam Facts

Senator Doug Whitsett
R- Klamath Falls, District 28

Phone: 503-986-1728    900 Court St. NE, S-303, Salem, Oregon 97301
Email: sen.dougwhitsett@state.or.us
Website: http://www.leg.state.or.us/whitsett
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Negotiations began in 1944 for a Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada. The dual purpose of the Treaty was to further develop and coordinate international hydroelectric generation capacity and to establish better flood control on the River.

The negotiations became more urgent after severe flood conditions occurred in the Columbia River Basin in 1948. The unprecedented high water caused a levy to breach that resulted in a disastrous flood that destroyed the city of Vanport. At that time, Vanport was located southeast of Portland and was the second largest city in Oregon.

The Treaty was finally ratified by both nations in 1964.

As a result of the treaty, four dams were constructed in Canada and Montana to help control the timing of seasonal run-off water. The nations have succeeded in their flood control efforts by coordination of water storage and release. No flooding has occurred on the mainstream Columbia since the completion of those dams.

The Treaty was designed to compensate Canada for the cost of the construction of three dams, and subsequent flood control management, with hydroelectric power. It provides that Canadians are entitled to a significant portion of the hydroelectric power that is generated in the United States when the massive amount of floodwater storage is released downstream from Canada.

The Treaty has no ending date. However, the Treaty provides that, after fifty years, either nation may serve ten-year notice that it desires to either renegotiate or end the Treaty. Next year is the first year for the countries to potentially give such notice.

Both Canada and the United States are actively involved in discussions of what a new Treaty might look like. The sovereign entities, including recognized Tribes in both countries, have been advancing visions of what a new and improved Treaty might look like. However, neither the United States nor Canada has officially stated its intent to change the Treaty.

However, the United States entity released a draft recommendation for the framework of an amended Treaty last week. Their agenda proposes to maintain the Treaty’s hydroelectric and flood control functions, but to add ecosystem restoration as a third and equal purpose. The proposed ecosystem development appears to be focused on the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin.

Advocates claim that Chinook salmon runs have fallen about 90 percent from an estimated average of 17 million in 1855 to a counted 1.7 million in 2010. However, the advocates are unable to explain two salient data omissions needed to support their claim.

First, to our knowledge no one was counting fish in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. No empirical evidence exists to support the claims that 17 million Chinook salmon ever ran up the Columbia. The claim that a 90 percent reduction has occurred in Chinook salmon runs appears to have no basis.

Further, the advocates allege that the decline in fish numbers was steady and precipitous since 1855.Their graphs clearly show that Chinook salmon numbers reached their lowest numbers in about 1940.

Grand Coulee Dam was the first and only dam constructed on the main stream Columbia at that time. The advocates have no clear explanation as to why the salmon numbers plummeted more than 90 percent BEFORE the main stream dams were constructed. Advocates claims alleging that draconian losses in salmon runs may have been caused by overfishing and habitat degradation, through logging and farming activities, also lack meaningful data.

It is apparent from visual and fishing records that River salmon runs did suffer significant reductions since the turn of the century. It is also apparent that little reproducible data exists to explain why virtually all of those losses occurred before 1940. The fact of the matter is that the fish biologists simply do not know.

An obvious corollary exists on the Klamath River. The PacifiCorp owned hydroelectric dams are widely blamed for reduced Chinook salmon runs on the Klamath River since the turn of the century. Advocates have long stated that the dams must come out in order to reestablish previous salmon numbers. Yet 2012 saw one of the largest, if not the largest Chinook salmon run ever recorded on the Klamath River. This year, salmon numbers are shaping up to surpass that record. The dams are still in the River and the water quality in the River has not changed. Fish biologists have no meaningful explanation for these massive Chinook salmon runs other than suggestions of “better” ocean conditions.

Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers already pay more than $1 billion per year for Columbia River ecosystem management that is primarily for the benefit of salmon. In fact, according to BPA officials, well more than 40 percent of BPA’s wholesale charges are attributable to the cost of complying with environmental ecosystem regulations.

About 43 percent of all electricity used in Oregon is generated by BPA. Utility ratepayers in Washington use even more BPA power. So it is the Northwest utility ratepayers who are paying virtually all of this environmental ecosystem tax on their electricity.

That is just one of many reasons why I am very skeptical of the draft recommendation to establish further ecosystem restoration as a third and equal criteria to hydropower generation and flood control.

Chinook salmon counts have more than doubled on the River since 1940. Further, record runs have been experienced during the last couple of years. Biologists have no empirical data explaining why these recent massive runs have occurred, other than vague and undocumented suggestions of “better” ocean conditions.

Further investments in habitat restoration on the River may be expected to be very expensive and are equally likely to produce little return on investment for ratepayers. Removal of the four Lower Snake River dams is one probable target for the restoration advocates that would significantly reduce power generation capacity and simply eliminate shipping from the port of Lewiston, Idaho. Other changes being considered in River flow management would also greatly increase costs to utility ratepayers.

It would seem to me that, in any Treaty revision, more consideration should be given to the maintenance of the River’s incredible freight shipping capacity. That capacity has been developed on the Columbia River as the direct result of dam construction and Canadian flood control. Furthermore, much more consideration must be given to the economic importance of the irrigation of tens of thousands of acres of fertile cropland that is only made possible by the dams.

The Council of State Governments Committee on Columbia River Governance will meet in Boardman next month. I have the privilege of chairing that committee this year. Our committee has shaped the entire agenda of that meeting around the ECONOMIC outcomes of any potential changes to the Columbia River Treaty.

Columbia River hydropower, shipping, irrigation, recreation and fisheries are primary economic engines for the Northwest economy. We must strongly resist any changes in the Treaty that will cause any of those engines to misfire.

Please remember, if we do not stand up for rural Oregon no one will.


Best Regards,







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