Despite tremendous pressure to delay a decision, the Northwest Power Planning Council approved a plan Dec. 14 to save Columbia River salmon. It relies on drawing down reservoirs - rather than on barges - to speed migrating salmon to sea.


"After 14 years of studying the problem, the council finally concluded that fish float," says Wendy Wilson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "For the first time barging would be the experiment - not leaving fish in the water."


The plan calls for a phased-in drawdown of Snake River reservoirs downstream from Lewiston, Idaho, beginning with a 28-foot drawdown of Lower Granite Reservoir in 1995. Environmentalists endorsed the plan because a drawdown would speed currents in the reservoirs during the two-month salmon migration season.


The Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from the eight federal dams in the Columbia River Basin, and other industry interests immediately labeled the plan an overly expensive experiment that might not work. The Columbia River Alliance, an industry-backed coalition, vowed it would call on the new Congress to invalidate the plan.


The planning council, created by Congress in 1980 to balance power and fish interests in the Columbia River Basin, estimates that its plan will cause residential electricity rates to rise about $2 per month by 1997. Bonneville's customers, including the aluminum industry, would see their wholesale rates increase by about 6 percent by 1997.


Northwestern lawmakers had urged the council to put off making changes to its plan until next year. That is when several new appointments are likely, including at least one from Idaho governor-elect Phil Batt. He opposes drawdowns.


But the council, under a court order to produce a biologically defensible plan, apparently felt the urgency of the moment. At a recent round of hearings, salmon advocates and biologists told council members they individually needed to immediately change the way dams are operated to prevent the extinction of the salmon.


Just over 1,000 wild adult salmon returned to spawn in the Snake River in 1994; scientists say maybe half that many will return in 1995.


"We are facing the last chance legally to craft a recovery plan in this region before the federal courts take the initiative away from us," council chairman Angus Duncan of Oregon said after the vote.


Environmentalists hope the power council's plan will give the National Marine Fisheries Service the courage to adopt an even more aggressive drawdown policy. On Jan. 29, the federal agency is scheduled to produce its version of a final recovery plan for the three endangered species of Columbia River salmon. Once again, however, the issue will probably end up in court.


For more information, contact the Northwest Power Planning Council, 1-800/222-3355.


* Paul Larmer