Pramila Jayapal and Brady Walkinshaw, candidates for the 7th Congressional District, stumbled this week when discussing Eastern Washington dams. And they took opposing sides on state Initiative 732.

Share story

Does Pramila Jayapal want to demolish the Grand Coulee Dam? Does Brady Walkinshaw know enough about hydroelectric power in Washington state? What were the 7th Congressional District candidates thinking this week when they discussed it?

Those were some of the questions audience members may have pondered Tuesday night during a candidates forum on climate change and the environment at a Ballard brewery.

The confusion began when moderator Lynda Mapes, a Seattle Times reporter, asked Jayapal to clarify a remark the Democratic state senator had made about getting rid of dams.

“You said we need to get rid of our dams. Did you mean all dams? Or just the Lower Snake River dams?” Mapes asked.

“The Columbia and Snake River, I should have said. Columbia and Snake River,” Jayapal replied, seemingly calling for the destruction of the massive dams that generate most of Washington’s hydropower, a valuable renewable resource largely responsible for the state’s low ranking in per capita carbon-dioxide emissions.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ordered federal agencies to take a new approach to dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers, including the possible removal of dams on the Lower Snake River to preserve fish populations.

But those specifics hadn’t been laid out Tuesday night when Mapes put Jayapal on the spot.

“Do you mean all of the Columbia dams?” she asked the candidate.

“I really do think that … I think that we have better forms of hydropower and I don’t think that our dams right now are helping us,” Jayapal said.

Walkinshaw was less sweeping in his answer, telling the crowd he supports keeping some dams.

When he reminded Jayapal the state relies heavily on dam-generated power, she briefly mentioned the possibility of getting more energy from offshore hydropower.

But the Democratic state representative said he would support removing all “non-generating” dams on the Lower Snake River. That didn’t make sense, either, because all four of the Lower Snake River’s dams generate power.

Eventually, both candidates collapsed in laughter, each admitting with chagrin that they didn’t know enough about the rivers and their dams to speak with authority about the issue.

They may want to study up. Though the Columbia and Snake are nowhere near the Seattle area’s 7th District, their dams supply power to the entire state and are governed federally.

More than 70 percent of Washington’s electricity comes from hydropower, a greater percentage than any other state.

The Columbia River’s Grand Coulee Dam alone generates about 7,000 megawatts of electricity. The four Lower Snake River dams churn out more than 1,000 megawatts — about 5 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s hydropower.

Seattle City Light gets about 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower — 40 percent from the Bonneville Power Administration system, which includes Columbia and Snake river dams.

The exchange left Mary Manous, a volunteer who helped organize the forum, somewhat bemused.

“It was funny. They both got flustered about the whole thing,” Manous recalled.

In a written statement Friday, Jayapal offered a clarification.

“I am in favor of removing the four Lower Snake River dams because they greatly impact the salmon population while not meeting the energy output they should,” she said.

“When looking at existing dams we need to weigh environmental impact against the energy output. However, we need to further invest in our hydroelectric technologies, like micro-hydro and hydro-current technologies, that now allow us to produce clean energy and have a far smaller environmental impact.”

Walkinshaw has learned more about the dams since the forum, he said in an interview Friday.

“I do believe we need to really have that assessment that was called for in that court ruling for us to look at dam removal seriously as an option … for the four dams on the Lower Snake River,” he said. “And I also believe that analysis needs to look at the carbon trade-offs in dam removal.”

The forum put on by Citizens Climate Lobby and Cascadia Climate Action, two nonprofit advocacy groups, also highlighted a rare issue on which the two progressive Democrats sharply differ.

Walkinshaw used the event to endorse state Initiative 732, which would enact a carbon tax while cutting the sales tax and offering tax credits to low-income households. He’d previously said he’d vote for the measure but hadn’t officially endorsed it.

Jayapal told the crowd she opposes I-732 — not because she’s against taxing carbon, but because the measure could be better.

She sides with the state Democratic Party and with environmental and social-justice organizations. They argue the initiative lacks input from low-income communities and communities of color, and fails to set aside new revenue for programs that would help those communities.

Emilia Jones, a volunteer who helped organize the forum, said there were proponents and opponents of I-732 in the crowd. Both candidates scored cheers for their positions on the measure, she said.

Manous, also an organizer, said she plans to vote for Walkinshaw in large part because he supports the initiative.

“It’s a huge deal to me,” she said. “Climate change is just bigger than any other issue. The other issues are important. But we need to just get some momentum going.”