Watch the first of 1 million juvenile salmon released into the Sacramento River
Standing next to a Department of Fish and Wildlife tanker on Wednesday morning, Scott Hambelton pulled a long lever. Tens of thousands of 4-inch silver fish gushed from a connected pipe and into the Sacramento River.
"That's hundreds of hours (of work) behind that pull," said Hambelton, a retired fishing guide from Roseville who was on hand to commemorate the release.
The tanker was the first of eight truckloads of juvenile Chinook salmon that California fisheries officials were bringing to the Elkhorn Boat Launch north of Sacramento throughout the day. In total, 1 million Chinook raised by biologists at a hatchery near the base of Oroville Dam were to be released into the river.
The fish now have to make the long journey to the Pacific Ocean. A small percentage of them will survive to adulthood and return to the river in two or three years to spawn.
For the anglers such as Hambelton who will try catch the Chinook when they return, Wednesday’s salmon release was viewed with mixed emotions.
The NOR-CAL Guides and Sportsmen’s Association and other fishing groups had spent more than a year pressuring state dam and fish-hatchery managers to raise extra fish to make up for the ones the fishing groups say were lost after the Oroville Dam spillway collapsed in February 2017.
The failure of the spillway was followed by a see-sawing of levels in the Feather River as dam managers turned flows from the spillway off and on to assess the damage, make repairs and release water from the rapidly filling Oroville Lake.
The fluctuations in the river damaged huge stretches of spawning habitat below the dam, covering them in silt and spillway debris. At one point, thousands of fish were unable to follow receding water back into the main channel; they became stranded in shallow pools along the flood plain. Spillway debris also killed tens of thousands of juvenile salmon at the Feather River hatchery below the dam.
The anglers say the river and its salmon runs haven't recovered; neither has salmon fishing, which brings money into towns and cities along the Feather.
After months of pressure, the anglers got what they wanted, at least in part.
The Department of Water Resources, the state agency that manages Oroville, agreed to pay Fish and Wildlife around $350,000 to raise an additional 2 million salmon at the Feather River Hatchery below the dam.
The first batch of 1 million fish was released into the Feather earlier this spring, under ideal conditions.
Water Resources had sent what is known as a “pulse flow” into the Feather River from the Oroville dam, ensuring currents were high and the river was cloudy, exactly the sort of cover that biologists say gives the fish the best chance of making the long journey to the Pacific. Murky, fast-moving water allows small Chinook to escape the hungry jaws of predatory fish such as striped bass.
Because salmon have the uncanny ability to return to exactly where they hatched, the first release into the Feather, close to the hatchery, also ensures more fish will be available to catch in Feather River towns, such as Yuba City and Oroville, when the fish return as adults.
But Wednesday’s release went into the Sacramento River, just downstream from the confluence with the Feather. Anglers say they're worried the returning fish will get lost in the Sacramento River or its other tributaries and won't be able to find their spawning grounds in the Feather.
It's a well-founded concern. Lost fish recently have become an issue. The reason: Hatchery managers moved and released juvenile fish via tanker truck several times during the worst of California’s five-year drought because river conditions were so poor. These released fish often struggle to locate the right places to deposit their eggs when they return from the Pacific Ocean.
For the 1 million fish released Wednesday, anglers had asked the state to discharge the salmon weeks earlier when the Feather was flowing faster. They also had sought another pulse flow.
State officials declined, partly because they said the fish weren't ready to be released, and partly to protect the water supply in Oroville Lake, which provides water to much of California.
"Although a pulse for a hatchery release in early March was a success, it was not possible this week because Lake Oroville is currently being operated to conserve water in light of the low snowpack with low water content," DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in an email. "As a result, (fisheries officials) decided the best adaptive approach for this week would be to move the release downstream."
Ron Kelly, an angler from Yuba City, said it was yet another example of how, when it comes to managing Oroville Dam, the state has one priority: protecting the water supply for farms, towns and cities as far south as San Diego. Locals, he said, are given the short shrift.
"It's all about the water mongers down south and taking care of them," Kelly said.
Similar allegations were raised by the forensic team investigating the spillway failure at Oroville Dam. Earlier this year, the team said the DWR was so worried about protecting the water stored behind the dam that officials made crucial missteps that made the crisis worse.
The spillway failure eventually triggered the two-day evacuation of 188,000 people. State officials refute that section of the forensic team's report, saying that safety of downstream residents was their only priority.
Despite Wednesday's salmon release being less than ideal, the fishing groups said they will take what they can get. Due to the drought and other woes, Central Valley anglers are facing one of the worst salmon seasons in years when fishing opens this summer.
"We're just happy to get any fish we can back into the water," said Hambelton, the retired guide.