California’s record drought has completely dried off large swaths of rivers, including the San Joaquin River, which means that juvenile salmon can’t actually reach the sea. In a desperate effort to save an entire generation of hatchlings, authorities are transporting them by truck, on the highway.
“Bone dry. Bone dry,” said fish biologist Don Portz of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, describing the Sao Joaquin River. Portz is six years into an effort to restore the southernmost salmon stream in the U.S., the Central Valley’s San Joaquin River.
California is currently experiencing the worst drought in at least 1,200 years – and the effects are easy to see everywhere. Governor Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in January and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for water shortages; there are water shortages in several areas, mandatory water saving regulations have been implemented, and of course, the wildlife is greatly suffering – especially fish.
Drought-ridden rivers mean the young salmon can’t perform their annual passage from the river to the Pacific Ocean – so as a last resort measure, humans tried to step in. State and federal wildlife agencies are coordinating the biggest “fish-lift” in the history of the state, and perhaps in the history of the world, hauling the fish in huge tankers.
“It’s huge. This is a massive effort statewide on multiple systems,” said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which since February has been rolling out four to eight 35,000-gallon tanker trucks filled with baby salmon on their freeway-drive to freedom.
But this is only a one time solution – it can’t work sustainably. As part of their lifecycle, salmon would reach the ocean, grow up, then to up the river again to lay eggs. If the river is dried up, they will again find themselves helpless.
“You give them that taxi ride down, they make it to the ocean, and come back” in a few years for trapping and a taxi ride back up to spawning grounds, Portz said.
This operation is also risky – In January, Oregon authorities charged a trucker with drunken driving after he hit a pole and flipped 11,000 juvenile salmon out on the roadway.
Also, authorities can’t transport all the salmon, but the ones that will be left behind will be picked up and temporarily placed in fisheries, to wait out the drought. But will the drought actually end? That’s another discussion.