The Northwest's chief power broker is willing to study the merits of draining dams on the mighty Columbia River to save the salmon, an official says.

But to make up for lost hydropower production, more nuclear and coal plants may need to be built, said Jack Robertson, deputy administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.Robertson was one of 30 members of a "Salmon Summit" meeting Tuesday in Boise. The committee, charged with devising a plan to save five salmon stocks from extinction, will meet next month in Portland.

A final plan is due Feb. 1. All five stocks are being considered for listing as endangered species.

In responding to a proposal to halt power production at the Snake and Columbia river dams when the juvenile fish are migrating in the spring, Robertson said the BPA will examine the proposal's merits and impacts in detail. It would save the smolts from being destroyed by generator turbines.

"We may need to push forward with coal plants sooner than expected, and that could cause acid rain problems in the Northwest. The hydro system ensures clean air and a quality of life that the people in this region have grown accustomed to," he said.

Fish advocates said disrupting the BPA's massive hydropower grid for the benefit of Snake River salmon is long overdue.

Bill Bakke of Oregon Trout in Portland said federal law called for the BPA to manage the hydropower system for power and fish as equal interests. He said the fact that Snake River chinook runs are edging close to extinction is proof the BPA neglected to do so.

"We've identified 76 threatened stocks in the Columbia Basin," Bakke said. "We've chosen to file (petitions for endangered species listing) on only five."

Robertson admits the BPA has not fulfilled its mandate.

"Historically, the balance has not been there," he said. "In Bonneville's view, we need to change."

The BPA's $1.5 billion "Columbia Basin Accord," which calls for curtailing harvest, dumping more water for fish migration and other measures, is the agency's proposed solution, he said.

Sherl Chapman, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, stressed solutions must be found in the Lower Columbia River, not in the Upper Snake.

"Recent studies show that over 99 percent of the human-caused fish mortality happens downstream from Idaho," he said. "Looking to Idaho as the solution to flushing the salmon smolts downstream is not realistic."

Idaho irrigators will not relinquish long-held water rights for problems caused by downriver dams, Chapman said. "Nearly all of the water stored (in reservoirs), with the exception of a small percentage, is covered by established water rights and contracts," he said.

Ed Chaney of Idaho Salmon and Steelhead Unlimited said he hopes the mix of hydropower interests, aluminum companies, irrigators, fishermen and others can agree on a solution that saves the runs.

"We've studied the fish to death," the Eagle resident said. "The time for denial is over. . . . It's very difficult to accomplish in four months what we couldn't in four decades. But we've got no other choice."