The giant spring runoff that was supposed to safely whisk baby Snake River salmon over dams to the Pacific Ocean has been cut down to size. Mother Nature accomplished part of the feat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did the rest.

A series of wet winter storms had buoyed the hopes of salmon advocates working for the survival of this year's "class of "95" (HCN, 5/29/95). But while millions of young salmon began their journey to the sea, cool spring weather kept much of the snowpack from melting. Flows on the Snake River, while significantly better than last year, were not high enough that river managers would consistently spill water - and endangered salmon - over the blockade of federal dams.

When water isn't spilled over dams, fish are pulled into the dams' power turbines where their chances of survival are greatly diminished, according to fisheries biologists.

To make matters worse, salmon advocates say the Army Corps, which operates the dams, cut back spill levels at three Lower Snake River dams several times in May, ostensibly to protect fish. The agency said it had to reduce dissolved nitrogen levels in the water below the dams to meet state water quality standards. Too much of the gas in water is deadly to fish.

But fisheries biologists say the Corps killed many more fish sending them through the dams' whirling turbines than they saved trying to reduce the gas caused by turbulent spills.

Monitoring of fish below the dams has shown that nitrogen gas has affected less than 1 percent of the fish sampled by scientists this year. "Dissolved gas is not a problem biologically," says Michelle DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center. The center collects biological information for the federal agencies overseeing the hydropower system.

DeHart says the real problem is political, since the Corps is under pressure to maximize power production for the Bonneville Power Administration and its customers, and has no interest in changing its policy of barging salmon around the dams. Spilled water, she adds, does not produce electricity, and spilled fish don't ride on barges.

Charles Ray, an advocate for salmon with Idaho Rivers United, says the Corps reduced spills against the wishes of another federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for recovering the endangered salmon. In a letter to Fisheries Service regional director William Stelle, Ray and representatives of two fishing groups wrote: "Are you and NMFS in charge, or is the Army Corps of Engineers the real decision maker for Snake River salmon?"

"It's obvious that the Corps is acting as a free agent," Ray says. "They do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it."

* Paul Larmer