07.25.16 | By Jessica Hanson

The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River is an enormous environmental and economic force. Spanning from the Canadian Rockies through Washington State all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon, its basin touches seven states and one Canadian province.  For decades, the river has been managed as a source of inexpensive hydropower and flood protection. Tribes have inhabited the basin for much longer, relying on its salmon stocks and other First Foods for sustenance, among many other benefits. Today, the Columbia River Treaty governs river management, but that agreement is slated for an update in 2024.

As the update draws nearer, Columbia River Basin tribes are scaling up their efforts in Treaty negotiations, and a coalition of tribes has sought Earth Economics’ help in valuing the Basin’s natural capital. For the assessment, Earth Economics is partnering with three key groups: the Pacific Rivers Council, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC – representing the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes), and the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT – a union of the Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Spokane, Kootenai, and Colville tribes).

This economic valuation of the river arrives just in time to provide critical information that can inform negotiations for the upcoming 2024 Treaty update. The original 1964 Treaty between the United States and Canada focused on two river management areas: hydropower generation and flood risk management.  Today, the tribes are expecting that the re-negotiated treaty will take a more expansive view of the Columbia River, allowing for ecosystem-based functions to be included in a modernized Treaty.

It’s a critical time to begin negotiations.  Although the Treaty doesn’t have an expiration date, beginning in 2014, either party can terminate the agreement with 10 years notice. In 2024, flood risk management will change significantly if there is no change to the Treaty. The Treaty is a model of international cooperation that optimizes hydropower production and protects developments in the Basin from most flooding, but the original agreement doesn’t account for all of what the Basin provides.

Earth Economics’ study will focus on valuing nine main categories that cover different aspects of natural capital within the Basin. Commercial fishing, recreation industry, hydroelectricity generation, power generation, agriculture, flood risk, navigation, cultural significance, and ecosystem service values will all be addressed.

The natural capital assessment itself is noteworthy as it is a first-ever assessment of the Columbia River Basin’s natural capital, but that’s not the only distinguishing element to this project. Work with CRITFC and UCUT brings together 15 different tribes and marks an unprecedented collaboration – never before has Earth Economics worked simultaneously with so many tribes. Together, this unique set of skills and voices will be a strong force at the negotiating table for river management.

The results of this valuation will help establish policy priorities and inform investment in natural infrastructure restoration and conservation. Earth Economics will be valuing current conditions and providing an enhanced view of ecosystem-based function integration into the Treaty that will allow natural restoration of important ecosystems and support a healthier river system for salmon reintroduction.  

Participating Tribes

  1. Coeur d’Alene Tribe
  2. Kalispel Tribe of Indians
  3. Spokane Tribe of Indians
  4. Kootenai Tribe of Idaho
  5. The Confederated Tribe of the Colville Reservation
  6. Nez Perce Tribe
  7. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
  8. The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon
  9. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation
  10. Burns Paiute Tribe
  11. Ft. McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribes
  12. Shoshone Paiute Tribe of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation
  13. Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
  14. Cowlitz Indian Tribe
  15. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation