INDIAN tribes from around the Northwest gathered along the Columbia River recently for their annual ``Salmon Feast and Pow-Wow.'' For thousands of years, their ancestors had fished Celilo Falls near here, and the air was heavy with tradition as well as the flavorful smoke of salmon cooked in great slabs over open fires. But the atmosphere was bittersweet, for the custom of fishing was radically changed by the construction of The Dalles lock and dam that turned Celilo Falls into a reservoir 34 years ago. Now a series of 56 major dams throughout the 260,000-square-mile Columbia River watershed - plus other 20th-century agricultural, industrial, and transportation activities - threatens the very existence of Pacific Northwest salmon.
The Bonneville Power Administration - which markets Northwest hydropower - sums up the history of the problem this way:
``All along the river, reservoirs flooded miles of what had been salmon-spawning and rearing grounds for thousands of years. Agriculture also contributed to declining fish runs as farm animals grazed on streamside vegetation and irrigators impounded streams and returned the water laden with sediment, pesticides, and herbicides. Careless logging altered watershed runoff, removed shade trees, and scoured the gravel streambeds that salmon and steelhead need to spawn. Dredge-mining, industrial waste, and th e toxic drainage from cities and roads polluted the river environment for fish.'' Then there are the eight or nine major hydroelectric dams the smolts - juvenile fish - face along the Snake and Columbia Rivers, each one of which reduces the downstream run by another 10 to 15 percent.
The result, says Ed Chaney, a fisheries consultant and salmon expert, is that ``one of the most magnificent creatures on the face of the earth is about to become like the buffalo and the passenger pigeon.'' As head of the Northwest Resource Information Center in Eagle, Idaho, and one of the strongest advocates for salmon over the past 25 years, Mr. Chaney may be forgiven overstatement. But recent scientific evidence bears him out.
The American Fisheries Society (a scientific group founded in 1870) reported last month that 214 stocks of anadromous, or ocean-migrating, fish from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California are dangerously depleted. Of those, 159 are at high or moderate risk of extinction, and 19 may already be extinct.
A week earlier, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed listing the Idaho sockeye salmon under the Endangered Species Act. Recent annual salmon counts indicate that the Idaho sockeye may already be a goner. In 1989, official fish counters spotted only two sockeye at the Lower Granite Dam, the last passable dam on the Snake River. Last year there was only one, and scientists aren't certain the fish made it all the way to its spawning ground. Four other salmon runs (spring, summer, and fall chinook in the Snake and coho in the Columbia) are likely to be listed as threatened or endangered this summer.
One hundred years ago, salmon were abundant. Tribes were well-fed and able to trade from their excess catch. Then white settlers, using large machines like ``fish wheels'' and modern vacuum-canning facilities, stepped up the annual harvest. The Reclamation Act of 1902 began a process of flood control and irrigation that turned millions of acres of eastern and central Oregon and Washington into a cornucopia of grain and fruit. Locks and canals extended waterborne trade to and from the Pacific nearly 500 miles into Idaho.
But it was the hydroelectric dams, beginning with Bonneville in 1938, that accelerated the decline of the salmon and steelhead (a migrating species of trout). According to the Northwest Power Planning Council, 75 percent of the salmon loss has been due to the dams.
The fish are born hundreds of miles back up the Columbia/Snake watershed. As juveniles, they work their way out to the Pacific, then spend two or three years migrating up to Alaska and back before swimming upstream to their place of birth to spawn. Their biggest obstacles in both directions are the dams. The dam builders and operators have added fish ladders to help them upstream and devices to guide them downstream around the huge, churning turbines. But neither these nor fish barges, nor millions of d ollars spent on fish hatcheries, nor increases in water flow at key times of year have proved satisfactory.
The smolts (whose ``biological clock'' necessitates their getting to the ocean in about three weeks) are held up in reservoirs, which are too warm and expose them to predators and disease. Many are killed in the power generators. (Imagine swimming through a giant food-processor.) And there are serious questions about whether hatchery fish inherit the hardiness, migratory ability, and instinct to survive.
``About half the hatchery fish [as juveniles headed downstream] never make it to the first dam,'' says Pamela Barrow, director of environmental affairs for the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee. ``That tells us we have a big problem with our hatchery fish. We're turning out very, very poor quality fish.''
The annual run, estimated to be 10 to 16 million fish 50 years ago, has dropped 85 percent to about 2.5 million. And 90 percent of those are hatchery fish (called ``swimming hot dogs'' by critics) not from original wild stocks, of which only 3 percent are left.
``The real problem we're all guilty of is is short-term vision,'' says Cecil Andrus, the governor of Idaho, who was secretary of the interior in the Carter administration. There is plenty of blame to go around, Governor Andrus said in a recent interview. But he says the chief culprits are the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
THE OMB is pushing Bonneville for more power revenues to pay off the debts from power-facility construction, especially the nuclear-power plants of the ill-fated Washington Public Power Supply System (dubbed WHOOPS). Of the five plants orginally planned, two were abandoned before construction began, two were mothballed, and only one is operating. The result was a municipal bond default of $2.25 billion, the largest muncipal bond default in US history.
The plight of the salmon is not a recent revelation. Warnings from biologists and fish agencies began decades ago. In 1980, Congress passed amendments to the Pacific Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act designed to ``protect, mitigate, and enhance'' fish and wildlife on the Columbia and its tributaries. In essence, fish were to be on an equal footing with human activity in the watershed. A council appointed by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana was established to draft regi onal-power and fish-recovery plans.
Bonneville and other government agencies invested millions of dollars in habitat-improvement and hatchery programs, set up a ``water budget'' to increase flows when fish were migrating, and limited salmon harvest. But critics say the effort not only was not enough but was misdirected toward economic ends rather than preserving biological diversity.
``It wasn't an ecologically designed recovery program; it was simply designed to increase fish,'' says Bill Bakke, head of the Portland-based conservation group Oregon Trout. ``We convinced ourselves that all we needed to do was build hatcheries and release fish for harvesters and everything would be OK.''
Some runs showed improvement, but when the overall result proved unsatisfactory - especially for wild stocks - Indian tribes and environmental groups petitioned the federal government under the Endangered Species Act. Even if the government approves the listings, it will take at least another two years to have a recovery plan in place.
To find a quicker solution (and one that could be worked out within the region), US Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon convened a ``salmon summit'' of all interested parties. The group recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers release more water to help the salmon travel downriver but failed to come up with a comprehensive salmon recovery plan.
``I had high hopes for the summit, but it became obvious that only some of the participants wanted to solve the problem,'' Andrus said. ``The downriver power interests clearly have the notion that if they can stall for two or three years the problem will go away because the anadromous fish will become extinct. If I sound pessimistic and a little ticked off, you've got it right.''
Steps necessary to save the threatened salmon stocks are no great mystery: more water downstream to help migration, more protective devices around dams, and stricter limits on commercial fish harvests. It sounds simple, but will be far from easy. More water for fish means less water for commercial activities. Especially hard hit could be farmers - who are likely to have less water for irrrigation but will need to pay more to pump it as electricity rates go up. Comparisons have been made to another envir onmental-economic battle in the Northwest - protecting northern spotted owl habitat at a cost to the timber industry.
There is a similarity in that hatchery fish are unnatural in the same way that tree plantations following clear-cuts are not the same as old-growth forests.
But the salmon story is far more politically complicated, involving not only many major industries (for example, 40 percent of all US aluminum production and $5 billion in annual farm output) but also just about everyone who flips on a light switch here. Andrus says the cost must be shared by all involved in the region, special interests as well as electric-rate payers. To help ease the burden, he wants the White House to write off at least part of Bonneville Power's debt. ``If we can forgive Egypt's de bt of $8 billion and pay Tel Aviv $650 million for Scud missile damage, we can solve the fish problem,'' he says.
Under the Endangered Species Act, biological issues must be addressed independent of any economic impact. Environmentalists are preparing lawsuits to force federal agencies to do just that once the expected official listings occur. But they also stress that protecting species will inevitably be best for the economy as well, if government planners and water users will take the longer view.
``What we're ultimately doing is protecting a genetic base and all of its variability,'' says conservationist Bakke, whose happiest hours are spent in waders with a fly rod in his hand. ``The economic benefits ultimately rest on that.''
Like salmon migration from the watershed of the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the Pacific, timing may be the key to any recovery program. ``It can be fixed, and I'm convinced that it can be cost-effective,'' salmon expert Chaney says. ``The only question is, will the fish hold out?''