Over the river and through the dam...

Should migrating fish hitch a ride on a river barge or make their own way past hazardous dams? Disagreement over this question has stalled efforts to restore the salmon and steelhead trout runs in the Columbia River basin in the Northwestern United States.

The Northwest Power Planning Council, a congressionally created interstate compact, advocates fish travel on their own. On the other side of the dispute, is the US Army Corps of Engineers which prefers ``smolts afloat'' - shipping the fish around the dams on barges - saying it is a more effective and less costly means of getting them safely downstream.

The Columbia-Snake River basin, a major river system running through four states, contains the country's richest stocks of salmon and steelhead trout - as well as its largest network of hydroelectrical dams. Although fish and power are each vital to the region's economy, protecting the two resources has often proven to be a difficult balancing act.

Since its start-up more than 50 years ago, hydroelectric power development has dramatically reduced adult fish populations. Today's runs average 2.5 million fish a year, compared with historic highs of more than 13 million, according to the planning council's estimates.

The conflicting needs of hydropower and fish migration center most intensely in the downstream portion of the river system, where smolts - juvenile salmon and steelhead migrating toward the Pacific Ocean - have to avoid huge power-generating turbines as they swim through the dams.

``Fifty percent of the fish die at each project that has no bypass screens'' to steer them away from the turbine blades, says council hydrologist Jim Ruff. Underwater diversion screens are essential to the smolts' survival, according to the Power Planning Council. Placed in front of the turbines, these screens direct most of the young fish up and away from danger.

But only a few of the dams in the main stem of the Columbia have screens - and many of these are inefficient and need replacing. In all, the council has called on the Army Corps to spend $160 million for screen installation at all eight main-stem dams.

The Army Corps, which operates the dams, would rather collect the fish and move them around the dams in barges. ``We believe transportation is more efficient and productive than bypass screens,'' says Col. James Royce, regional deputy director for the Corps. Colonel Royce says that, aboard the barges, the fish are safe from predators, as well as the turbine blades. With enough barges, the Corps feels it can save a reasonable percentage of the fish for a lot less money.

The controversy this fall involves a standoff between regional interests and national economics. At stake is the success or failure of the largest wildlife-restoration project in the United States - as well as utilities' ability to meet the electric-power needs of the West Coast.

The bypass dispute centers around this question: What is an acceptable trade-off between maximizing fish survival and meeting power needs?

The council, which receives its mandate from the US Congress's 1980 Northwest Power Act, is responsible for protecting both wildlife and hydropower interests. In its attempt to rebuild severely depleted fish stocks, it has set a goal of doubling the current salmon and steelhead runs. Until permanent bypass facilities are installed, the council has required that large amounts of water be spilled over each dam and not through the turbines during the spring and fall fish migrations.

While the spillage is necessary for smolt survival, it is extremely expensive in terms of lost power. The screens help preserve the fish population and solve the spill problem, according to the planning council.

In just a few years, the council studies show, the Army Corps would, through increased power production, retrieve the costs of the screens.

Virtually all other groups, including local Indian tribes and biologists, support the screens. Further, Congress has appropriated almost $20 million from the past two national budgets for the screens.

But the Army Corps disagrees. And it has raised a new issue: Who should pay for fish screens? US taxpayers, regional power consumers, or both? The Army Corps argues that no more federal dollars should be spent on bypass projects.

The council should establish an end point to the Corps' fish-protection responsibilities, according to the Army Corps. Thereafter, the cost of any further bypass, and hence stock rebuilding, should be borne directly by the region's electric-power consumers - not national taxpayers, Royce says.

Yet council member Norma Paulus can't understand the Army's position. ``The ratepayers' elected [congressional] representatives have assessed the collected agreement'' of the four-state region, she says. The proposed full-scale screen project has regional support, both financially and environmentally, Ms. Paulus maintains.

As the annual runs continue to diminish, the genetic biodiversity of native and wild salmon and steelhead is in jeopardy. And again, the opposing sides disagree. The council believes the screens are essential to preserving the fish, charging that the barges contribute disease in some species.

But the Army Corps believes there is no evidence that the screens are any better than the barges in this regard.

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