Fins vs. turbines. Interest groups backing fish and hydroelectric dams join together to save salmon population in the Columbia River

FISH and hydroelectricity. Smolts and volts. They are probably the most distinctive characteristics of the Northwest, and each owes its existence to the mighty Columbia River. But managing the river to provide for both resources has proved to be one long lesson in conflict resolution. Each year, as salmon fight their way up the Columbia to spawn, the Northwest witnesses nothing less than a struggle for survival. Man has put many obstacles in the path of the fish - including a series of concrete hydropower dams spanning the river. Such effects have taken their toll over the years, and the salmon population began to shrink.

Now, a broad-based effort here to bring back the salmon seems to be paying off: Fish counts appear to be on the rise after a longtime decline.

The multimillion-dollar fish-recovery program may well be the biggest attempt ever made in the United States to save a natural resource. It involves no fewer than five state fish-and-wildlife agencies, two federal fish-protection agencies, 120 utility companies, 13 Indian tribes, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) - groups that have often crossed swords in the past.

As the fall chinook salmon run tails off and the winter steelhead trout run begins, Northwest officials say the overall fish counts this year are likely to hit 3 million - apparently reversing a decline that bottomed out in 1981 at about 1 million fish.

``The trends are headed the right way, but they've just turned the corner,'' says John Palensky, director of the fish and wildlife division of the BPA, which sells power generated by federal dams on the Columbia. It's too soon to tell whether the improvement is just a weather-related blip or if it will be sustained in the long term, he says.

Although Northwest officials see reason for optimism, they also say there's a long way to go to even partly restore the fish runs of the Columbia River Basin. Legend has it that salmon were once so plentiful here you could walk across the river on their backs.

Folklore aside, studies have determined that today's runs are only about 15 percent of historic levels. While logging, development, farmland irrigation, and overfishing all contributed to the decline, the 17 concrete dams - which pose permanent obstacles to the salmon and trout - are responsible for most of the damage, researchers say. BUT the dams are also the Northwest's energy lifeline, forming the spine of a vast transmission grid that extends all the way to California. Cheap and plentiful, hydroelectric power is the engine that for 50 years has driven the industrial economy of the Northwest.

In the past decade, however, this bright spot has begun to fade. The BPA's electric rates have skyrocketed, tied in part to the agency's misadventure in building three nuclear power plants in the '70s. In 1988 the BPA will raise its rates again, to cover this year's $230 million budget deficit and to make its $600 million annual repayment to the US Treasury to help retire its $8.5 billion federal debt.

BPA's scrimping has meant cuts in its programs for fish and wildlife. ``As much as we all love fish, we're not willing to forgo lights,'' says the BPA's Mr. Palensky. THE Northwest Power Act of 1980, however, requires the BPA and other federal agencies to mitigate damage done to the fisheries from the hydro system. Total federal expenditure for fish enhancement in the Columbia River system this fiscal year will be at least $117 million, officials say.

Although cooperation between fish interests and electric power interests has improved dramatically in the past few years, questions remain about the best way to bring back the salmon.

One controversy centers on promotion of hatchery-raised fish vs. protection of the remaining ``wild'' fish. Another dispute concerns how to get fingerlings around the dams in the spring: The Army Corps of Engineers prefers to truck young salmon past Bonneville Dam via a program called Operation Fish Run, while Indian tribes want to find a way to keep the fish in the river, even if it is more costly.

Retrofitting the massive hydroelectric dam system for fish protection is proving to be expensive and a technological challenge. Many of the dams already have underwater ``fish ladders,'' most installed at the time the dams were built, to enable salmon to scale the dam and continue their upstream migration. Unforeseen, however, was the difficulty the fish's progeny would encounter traveling downstream on the way to the Pacific.

Each year, the tiny fish were languishing in reservoirs behind the dams, or were being chopped up by blades of the turbines at the powerhouse generators. Now, special underwater screens are being installed at the dams to guide the smolts away from the turbines, a project scheduled for completion in 1994. In addition, the generators will occasionally be turned off, and fish-laden water will be allowed to spill through the dam without passing through the turbines, in an attempt to speed the tiny smolts' journey to the ocean.

There is some argument, too, about how well fish stocks are returning - and why.

The improvement may have nothing to do with fish management on the Columbia, says Michele DeHart, a manager of the Fish Passage Center in Portland. The US-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty, signed in 1985, now regulates the salmon catch off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. Cutting back the ocean harvest means that more adult fish are ``escaping'' back to their spawning grounds, she says.

``One thing you have to remember is, the hydro system has been in place for 50 years, operating with the sole purpose of producing power and providing flood control,'' Ms. DeHart says.

``Now we are trying to retrofit fishery protection onto that system. We still have a long way to go.''

``It would not be correct for anyone to claim sole responsibility for rebuilding the stocks,'' says Tim Wapato of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four Northwest tribes with fishing treaty rights.

``Besides, the fall chinook are the only ones rebuilding,'' Mr. Wapato says. ``The summer and spring chinook show some indication of increasing, but nothing on the scale of the fall. We've still not done enough to take care of mortality at the dams.''

Still, given the improvements of recent years - most notably the new spirit of cooperation among old adversaries - Northwest planners are optimistic their goal of a yearly 5 million fish count is within reach. Perhaps if they exhibit even a fraction of the salmon's fierce determination, they will succeed.

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