Oct 19, 2017 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Record-Setting Drought Forces California Salmon to Take to the Highway

May 18, 2015 03:08 PM EDT

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California's record-setting drought has dried up large swaths of the San Joaquin River; bad news for the state's salmon. So in a desperate effort to save a generation of hatchlings, tanker trucks are being employed to transport the young fish downstream. With their normal passage blocked, the fish are now migrating via Highway 99.

On April 1st, an executive order was issued by California Gov. Jerry Brown, ordering mandatory water use reductions for the first time in California's history. The order imposed drastic restrictions on residents, farmers, and business owners, who continue to feel the effects of the intensive water shortage.

The shortages stem from a lethal combination: low rainfall and warm temperatures.

About half of California's annual rainfall normally occurs from December until February. But this year, between February and March, the state saw less than two inches of rain, when their normal average is at least 10. The lack of rain, combined with warmer than normal temperatures, kept the snowpack from accumulating along the Sierra Nevada. The lack of buildup means no meltwater. And without this "mountain reservoir," which the state relies on to recharge their reservoirs, there is no way to meet the demands of summer.

And the lack of meltwater is felt intensely along the state's rivers and streams; waterways that wildlife depend on for their very survival, no more so than the salmon.

The ongoing drought, coupled with damming and heavy use from California's agricultural industry, have dried up about 60 miles of the San Joaquin River. Drought-ridden rivers mean the young salmon find their passage to the Pacific Ocean blocked. The dry areas not only form barriers to migration, but the unusually shallow waters mean warmer temperatures incompatible to the salmon's survival. The shallows also make for easy pickings for predators.

So humans have stepped in to assist. State and federal wildlife agencies are coordinating the biggest "fish-lift" in the state's history, with convoys of tankers hauling the juvenile fish to their final destination.

"It's huge," says Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This is a massive effort statewide on multiple systems. We're going through unprecedented drought. We're forced to extreme measures."

All five of the big government hatcheries in California's Central Valley have been forced to take to the roadways. The Chinook California salmon they are hauling are already vulnerable; appropriately labeled as a species of concern under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

The massive effort involves up to eight tanker trucks, each carrying around 35,000 gallons of baby salmon. But when it comes to insuring the survival of their precious salmon, Californians are willing to go the extra mile. 

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