Northwest congressional delegates demand start of talks this year on Columbia River treaty

The entire congressional delegation from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana is demanding that the Obama administration begin negotiations with Canada to update a landmark treaty that governs the operation of dams on North America's fourth-largest river.

The treaty, signed in 1964, is important because the Columbia River basin's dams affect the economy, environment and flood-control needs of millions of residents in the four states, along more than 1,200 miles of the river and its tributaries.

"Given the 2024 deadline for certain aspects of the treaty, we ... urge you to initiate negotiations with Canada in 2015," the 26 members of the Senate and House wrote to the president this week.

The letter expressed concerns about the Obama administration's slow pace on the complicated matter.

The treaty governs operations of hydroelectric dams and reservoirs on the Columbia River. It has no expiration date, but either country can cancel it or suggest changes beginning in 2024 with 10 years' notice.

Numerous issues already have emerged.

For instance, the United States contends it should pay dramatically less to Canada for the various benefits it gets through the treaty.

Also, Native American tribes in the U.S. and Canada are pushing for the return of salmon runs that some of the dams destroyed.

Tribes are pushing for the treaty to include salmon restoration to the upper Columbia, above Grand Coulee Dam in northern Washington state. The U.S. has said the two countries should study the possibility of restoring fish passage over that dam. But Canada contends restoring fish migration and habitat is not a treaty issue.

The new letter follows one sent to the president last year requesting action by mid-2014. It is intended to "express consternation with how the process has unfolded thus far."

"We remain concerned about ... the prioritization this matter is receiving within your Administration and the Department of State," the letter states.