An end to fish fights?

NOT too many years ago, Northwesterners stood ready to fight over the last fish in the Columbia River. Now, competing interests meet routinely to find ways to provide more salmon and steelhead trout for everyone - commercial fishermen, sportsmen, Indian tribes, and environmentalists alike.

Most groups credit the Northwest Power Planning Council with bringing former archenemies to the negotiating table. A unique regional body authorized by an act of Congress in 1980, the council has two charges: to plan the region's energy future and to restore fish populations damaged by hydroelectric development.

The council ``has created a forum for discussion, even if not always for agreement,'' says John Palensky, director of the Bonneville Power Administration's fish and wildlife division.

Made up of representatives from the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, the council has overcome plenty of challenges in its short history. But this year it faced its most critical test yet.

``We always knew the real test would come when we had our first low-water year - and this was it,'' says Ed Sheets, the council's executive director. With spring runoff far below normal, competition for water intensified, threatening to cast the council's best-laid plans to the wind.

To understand what's at stake, follow a tiny chinook from its spawning ground on the Snake River to the Pacific Ocean more than 800 miles away.

Before the river was dammed a half-century ago, springtime torrents would flush the young fish downriver in a matter of days.

Now the Columbia is a placid string of back-to-back reservoirs, and the smolt's trip can take as long as two months, upsetting its biological clock and endangering its ability to adapt to salt water.

Along the way, the young fish may also fall victim to generator turbines at eight different dams, deadly pressure changes, or predators in reservoirs. According to the council, for every 100 fish that undertake the hazardous journey down the Columbia, only 23 make it to the ocean.

The council has adopted two measures to help more fish move safely down the river. It has set aside a block of water - known as the ``water budget'' - to be released from the dams to help flush young fish down river if they become ``stuck'' in torpid reservoirs.

In addition, the council has required 90 percent of the fish to survive passage at each dam, even if power generators must be stopped to allow fish to spill through the system.

When push came to shove, the water budget was available for fish, and the 90 percent survival rate was achieved at each dam, Mr. Sheets says.

No one, however, is completely satisfied with the outcome during this record-dry year. The fish agencies didn't get all the water they wanted to flush young fish downstream. The Army Corps of Engineers and the utility companies say that too much water was used, and that many of the fish died anyway.

The final results won't be in for three or four more years, when these fish return to the Columbia to spawn, Sheets says.

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