The Bonneville Lock and Dam is about 45 minutes east of Portland, Oregon, on the Columbia River. Photo by Devon D'Ewart. Published under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

The Columbia River and its tributaries could generate an additional $1.5 billion a year in economic activity if U. S. and Canadian agencies change the way they manage the numerous dams and reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest, a new study shows.

The study calls for releasing more water during the spring and summer to more closely mimic natural flows before dams were built.

Hydro-generated electricity would decline if the changes were enacted. But the $69 million decrease in power revenues would be more than offset by more spending from outdoor recreation activities, commercial fishing, and improved economies for tribal communities. The added economic benefits are derived from larger fish populations, expanding wetlands, and increasing forest size and health, the report says.

Conducted by Earth Economics, the study was commissioned by a consortium of Native American tribes interested in changing Columbia River management as they re-negotiate the Columbia River Treaty. Participating tribes and organizations include the Upper Columbia United Tribes, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, Pacific Rivers, Save Our Wild Salmon, and WaterWatch of Oregon among other groups.

Currently, the basin provides $198 billion in value annually in food, water, flood risk reduction, recreation, habitat, aesthetic, and other benefits. The study documents how small changes to river management could achieve large increases to the economic value of the Columbia River watershed. The report says such benefits would include things like more salmon and trout runs and cleaner water.

Sub-regions of the Columbia River.

The 258,000 square mile Columbia Basin flows west from Wyoming and Nevada and south from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, entering the Pacific Ocean along the Oregon and Washington border.

“This report comes at a time when the region is poised to take a historic step to modernize the Columbia River Treaty,” stated Jaime A. Pinkham, executive director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “There is vast potential for natural capital remaining in the Columbia River system. These findings tell negotiators that incorporating ecosystem-based function into the treaty will broaden and expand the economic benefits that can co-exist with flood control and energy production. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity.”

The Columbia River Treaty is set for an update in 2024. Native American tribes hope the study demonstrates how changing river management can improve both the economy and environment.

The changes proposed in the study include items such as the following:

  • $390 million in additional ecosystem service value per year of wetland and forest habitats due to increased water and nutrient availability.
  • $7 million in additional value per year to the non-tribal commercial fishery.
  • $46 million in additional value per year to recreational fishing

Columbia River management is dictated by U. S. and Canadian governments, as well as various tribal entities within both nations. In the U. S., river management policy occurs through the Bonneville Power Administration and U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Northwest Division.

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