Millions potentially on the line at town hall meet State Sen. Mike Cuffe calls for busload of Lincoln County residents to attend State Department town hall
State Sen. Mike Cuffe (left) speaks with Lincoln County Commissioners Mark Peck, Josh Letcher and Jerry Bennett about the Columbia River Treaty negotiations Wednesday. (Ben Kibbey/The Western News)
| March 8, 2019 4:00 AM
The U.S. State Department’s lead negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty will lead a town hall meeting at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell on Wednesday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. With millions of dollars potentially on the line for Lincoln County, State Sen. Mike Cuffe is encouraging Lincoln County residents to attend.
If negotiations go the way that Cuffe would prefer, the result could be up to $60 million annually coming to Montana from power generation revenues. Eighty percent of that would go directly to Lincoln County.
In 2015, Cuffe — then a state representative — carried a bill in the Montana Legislature anticipating a day when Montana would receive a share of the profits that the Libby Dam helps to create.
Since the Libby Dam accounts for 20 percent of the power generation through the water it controls and releases at a predictable rate, Cuffe said he has sought for Montana to receive 20 percent of what Canada does.
Canada receives between $200 million and $300 million annually as part of the Columbia River Treaty. This money is provided to Canada for dams that it maintains that hold water back and release it at a predictable rate, allowing Bonneville Power in the U.S. to generate power along the Kootenai River.
Cuffe said that the Canadian government receives half of the profits from power generation along the Kootenai under the treaty. The Canadian concession also recognizes the contribution to flood control by the Canadian dams.
Cuffe noted that 20 percent — which could net Lincoln County between $40 million and $60 million annually — is a starting point to negotiate, and a final figure could be less.
Under the law, 80 percent of any share coming to Montana from the electric profits would go to Lincoln County for schools, roads and general operations. The state would deposit the other 20 percent into the general fund.
Given the sacrifices Lincoln County residents have made in the past and continue to make in terms of lost agricultural land and other concessions related to the dam, Cuffe said he believes it is time for the county to receive more benefit from the dam.
He said he would really like to see a significant group from Lincoln County attend the March 20 meeting, and even floated the idea to the Lincoln County Commissioners of someone getting a school bus or something similar to ferry a large group of residents to Kalispell for the meeting.
“Get the bus, get the school van,” Cuffe said.
After hearing from Cuffe, the commissioners were in general agreement with his sentiments about county residents participating in the town hall and making themselves heard.
Commissioners Mark Peck and Jerry Bennett attended another town hall in Spokane in July, where they met with lead U.S. State Department negotiator Jill Smail at a private breakfast.
After that July meeting, the commissioners agreed — during their regular commission meeting that followed — that they felt the negotiators were open to the concerns of Lincoln County residents.
Long time coming
Cuffe, who has worked on improving the positions of both Lincoln County and Montana in the treaty for decades, said the two key issues for Lincoln County remain on the table as the U.S. State Department works with its Canadian counterpart, Global Affairs Canada, to renegotiate the 1961 treaty.
Those benefits for Lincoln County and Montana would be in recognition of the lost potential from the dam — British Columbia currently receives half of the revenue from electric generation due to the dams there — and removal from the treaty of an article that would allow Canada to divert over a quarter — 26 percent — of the flow of the Kootenai River.
Not only was a significant amount of good agricultural land lost when the valley was flooded to create Lake Koocanusa, but also good timber land, Cuffe said. That is in addition to the many people who were displaced for the construction of the lake.
While Cuffe told the Lincoln County Commissioners on Wednesday that it is unlikely Canada would ever take advantage of the portion allowing them to divert so much water from the Kootenai due to the wide recognition of the ecological disaster it would create, he maintained that it simply needs removed from the treaty.
The environmental — and economic — results from such a diversion could be catastrophic, exacerbated by the current issues with selenium contamination in the river from Canadian coal mines, Cuffe has said in the past.
In the past, Cuffe has pointed out that, if Canada has no intention of ever diverting the water from the Kootenai, then they should have no objection to removing that section from the treaty.
In regard to the revenue that Cuffe is seeking for Lincoln County, he said the permitted county uses for that money are meant to mirror the historical uses for timber sale revenues.
The law Cuffe carried in 2015 also calls for a trust fund to be set up from the money that goes to the county, which would accumulate interest to be spent on things such as infrastructure and environmental cleanup.
Cuffe said that there is still a long road ahead in negotiations. On Wednesday he told the commissioners that there is general agreement among all parties that an agreement needs to be reached by 2024.
Under the original treaty, 2024 is when Canada will no longer be bound to release water at pre-agreed rates, he said.
Though Cuffe did not talk about it, there is some pressure on the Canadian government that has been covered extensively by Canadian media to release less water from their dams early in the season. The lakes created by some of the Canadian dams are now circled by recreational communities, and residents there have expressed displeasure with how low the levels in those lakes are toward the end of summer.
Adding to points in favor of Lincoln County receiving money from the power generation, Cuffe pointed out to the commissioners that the Libby Dam also helps with flood control further along the Kootenai, benefitting residents not just in the U.S., but Canada as well where the rivers crosses back over the border.
In 2012, Libby Dam held back additional flow to prevent flooding downriver, he said. That additional two feet in Lake Kookanusa created an additional erosion ring, adding to dust in the air for people living near the lake such as residents of Eureka.
“We provide flood protection — we also provide Canada with the ability to generate power,” Cuffe told the county commissioners.
Since the original treaty, several power generation stations have been installed in British Columbia downriver from Libby. The predictable flow provided by Libby enables them to be able to generate power at several locations, he said.
Cuffe first dealt with the dam’s impact on Lincoln County when he was a University of Montana journalism student, and created a radio report in 1969 that included interviews with some of the residents displaced when the entire town of Rexford was removed from the area that is now Lake Kookanusa.
That radio production was set to pictures for a video that was played suring the July summit that the commissioners and Cuffe attended, both at the Lincoln County table during the summit and during Columbia River Treaty bus tours.
Having that narrative outlining the sacrifices made by Lincoln County residents from the start seemed to be particularly effective in getting the message across, Cuffe said. Even many of the attendees of the summit who otherwise benefit from the Columbia River Treaty dams in the U.S. and Canada were unaware that Lincoln County had no direct benefit from the arrangement.
Nor did many of them understand how much Lincoln County had lost because of the dam.
“It’s been a good treaty. It’s served its purpose,” Cuffe said. “The basis has been sound. We just want to be included.”
After that July summit, Cuffe said he felt some optimism for the first time in years of working to have the sacrifices and contributions of Lincoln County recognized.