Chelan County PUD had a party last week to celebrate the closing of its Museum of the Columbia at Rocky Reach Dam and the beginning of a two-year construction project that will result in a more interactive and updated museum at the dam’s visitor center.

Retired PUD executive Wayne Wright reminded us that Kirby Billingsley, the former Wenatchee Daily World journalist who became the first general manager of the utility, was a passionate proponent of having parks and visitor activities. The visitor center, landscaping and lawn at the dam was designed for people in our communities to enjoy and use.

Private utilities and federal agencies were poised to develop a dam at Rocky Reach when a group of local leaders decided that our county would be far better off owning the resource, Wright noted. Because of that vision and follow through, Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs have been able to return significant benefits to their customer-owners. Private companies would have simply turned those profits to investors. The power would be generated here and the profits would have gone elsewhere.

Billingsley was instrumental in convincing regulators to require utilities to include recreation facilities when hydroelectric projects were relicensed. That was the impetus for the wonderful parks on both sides of the Columbia River. Those parks have transformed our relationship to the river from a place where trash and cars were dumped to a place where the community gathers, recreates and celebrates.

Chelan County PUD has an impressive education program, headed by Bob Bauer and Deb Gallagher. Their energy and passion for teaching and sharing knowledge is palpable. One of their projects is putting on a Hydropower and STEM Academy annually to let students explore opportunities for STEM careers at the utility.

PUD General Manager Steve Wright told me that moving the museum, which currently located in the dam overlooking the turbines, was necessary for security reasons. It was not ideal having visitors that close to the inner workings of the dam.

In 2021, the ribbon will be cut on the renovated visitors center and a new-look Museum of the Columbia. The estimated cost of the renovation is $6 million.

Engaging the public is more important than ever for the utilities of this state. It seems that appreciation for clean, renewable energy is waning across the state. Reminding people of the benefits while at the same time continuing to work to mitigate impacts on fish seems like a sensible approach.

We should all be proud of and thankful for the leaders who put community benefit first and took big risks to capture the benefits of hydropower. We stand squarely on their shoulders.

Now it is up to us to follow their example and make decisions that will enhance the quality of life in our region for generations to come.

Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at rwoods@wenatcheeworld.com or 509-665-1162.