President's Column

Wednesday, June 10

Drought is one more reason to be thankful for Northwest dams

As I was driving across the state recently, from Olympia to Spokane, I could see from the windshield why farmers and others are worried about a drought this summer.

There isn’t much snow in the mountains.

A few days later Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency. Snowpack is just 16 percent of normal, the governor said, and officials are predicting $1.2 billion in crop losses as a result. Firefighters are bracing for the worst. For many in our state, this is going to be a challenging summer.

It would be even worse, though, without the Northwest dams.

For decades, the Columbia and Snake River dams have provided Washington’s economy with huge economic advantages over other regions, both in the form of water to irrigate crops and clean, renewable low-cost electricity to power manufacturing companies.

And once again, the dams are giving us a boost. On the same day the governor announced the drought emergency, Maia Bellon, the director of the state Department of Ecology, called hydroelectric power one of two bright spots in Washington’s drought picture.

(The other is that water supplies in the state’s largest cities should be sufficient.)

The reason, Bellon said, is because most of the major power-producing dams are on the Columbia River, which is primarily fed by runoff from Canadian snowpack. And while Washington’s snowpack is incredibly low, Canada’s is much better.

That means there should be no lack of electricity this summer or winter.

There is mounting evidence that the general public understands the importance of the Northwest dams to our region’s future, despite years of attacks from critics.

According to a February, 2015 poll conducted by DHM Research, 70 percent of respondents agree that the dams on the lower Snake River are critical to the Northwest’s energy picture. A minority of residents, just 10 percent, say the Snake River dams should be removed.

In other words, the general public believes we can have both a healthy economy and a healthy environment.
In the same poll, 77 percent of Washington and Oregon residents agree that dams are critical to the Northwest and say they can co-exist with salmon — up from 73 percent in 2014.

The facts support their opinion, too. Salmon abundance has steadily improved for more than a decade thanks to habitat and dam improvements, as well as good ocean conditions. Last year, a modern-day record of 2.5 million adult salmon returned to Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River.

All of these benefits are celebrated in a series of television ads that began airing in February. The CleanHydro ads, produced for the group Northwest Riverpartners and posted online at, highlight the importance of Northwest dams for everything from agriculture (Northwest rivers irrigate 7.8 million acres of farmland each year), commerce (the river system provides more than 100,000 jobs for the region) and clean air (hydro produces no carbon emissions and keep 700,000 trucks of the highways each year) to flood control, recreation and renewable energy (dams provide 90 percent of the Northwest’s renewable energy).

As we enter a period of great challenge, it’s worth remembering this sentence from one of the ads: "A lot more than water flows from these rivers."

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