SACRAMENTO (KPIX 5 ) — With all the rain we’ve been having, one would think it would be good thing for the imperiled salmon population. It would be if all that new fresh water wasn’t so confusing. The salmon keep getting lost. Instead of migrating to their spawning ground, they wind up swimming up a ditch and ultimately into a death trap. Fortunately, Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to save them.

Chinook salmon are a multi-billion dollar industry up and down the west coast. The Sacramento River was once abundant with salmon, but years of drought, and man-made problems have devastated the species, landing them on the Endangered Species List.

If the Department of Fish and Wildlife hadn’t stepped up, hundreds more adult Chinook salmon would be dead in days.

“We’ve rescued over five hundred fish,” said the agency’s senior scientist Colin Perdy.

The confused salmon are attracted to the fresh water flowing through this irrigation ditch.

The confused salmon are attracted to the fresh water flowing through this irrigation ditch.

The scientists are saving them from a small irrigation canal northwest of Sacramento. The wound up there after taking a wrong turn in the Delta, leaving the Sacramento river and swam 30 miles in a ditch. They ended up in middle of John Brennan’s rice farm.

“The drain they are headed up is not headed toward spawning ground, it’s headed to a maze of drains on the west side of the valley,” said Brennan.

The rescue entails several steps. First, scientists carefully measure the Chinook. Then they take samples for DNA testing and tag them. Finally, the scientists drive the fish, 12 at a time, back to the Sacramento River.

“They can make their decision if they want to go up the Feather or the Sacramento, or wherever they want to go… anywhere but that ditch,” laughs Perdy.

Scientist say the confused fish keep coming because to them, the water smells and feels much like the river, especially on rainy days when the irrigation water is flowing like the river current.

One solution would be to reconnect the top of the ditch back to the river, thus allowing the fish to escape. The river is about two miles from the ditch. But anything they do that would impact agriculture water gets complicated. There are no quick fixes.

The Sacramento River

The Sacramento River


“There’s a lot of people studying this issue with the bureau of reclamation,” said Brennan. “They’ve been thinking about it ten to 15 years.”

Meanwhile, the Chinook keep coming back.

The trap and rescue operation will continue for a few more months but the problem of the salmon getting into the ditch to won’t go away until an engineering solution is found.

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