It was, as the duck hunters say, a bluebird day in the Sacramento Valley — sunny and warmish, barely a cloud in the sky. I stood on the edge of a harvested rice field, squinting into a drainage ditch. The water was maybe a foot deep.
Suddenly, a tail fin belonging to a salmon way too big for these shallows broke the surface, then disappeared. Peering into the water, I could make out a male and female, perhaps as large as 25 pounds. What on earth were winter-run Chinook doing here, in a ditch next to a rice field, when they should be making their way up the Sacramento River to their spawning grounds?
"They got lost," said my guide, Jacob Katz, a senior scientist with CalTrout, a nonprofit engaged in improving fish populations. "They zigged when they should have zagged."
Miles southwest of here, after swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Sacramento Delta, these endangered fish made a wrong turn. Instead of bearing right in the Sacramento River, they turned left into a system of agricultural drainage canals and ended up many miles later in dead-end ditches like this. Each year, despite rescue efforts of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, hundreds end up dying, without spawning, at the edges of Sacramento Valley rice fields.
Young salmon heading downstream to the ocean have it even worse. If they survive to the age of migration, the fast-moving Sacramento River provides them with little food and refuge from predators. Other disasters befall them; in 2014 and 2015, most salmon eggs were wiped out by high water temperatures in the river, a result of the drought and a mechanical flaw in a temperature control device at Shasta Lake that was supposed to release enough cold water to save them.
Tuesday, I visited a couple of projects in the Sacramento Valley that are aimed at helping salmon on both ends of the life cycle. They are collaborations between farmers and environmentalists, two groups that are often at each other's throats in the never-ending battle over who is entitled to California's precious water supply.
"It's just a blessing to work with these people," said second-generation rice farmer Bryce Lundberg, at a breakfast that included Katz, farmers and officials from various water districts and state agencies. "Our future is tied to the environment. The health of birds and fish is tied to the health of farms."
The environmental awakening of the Sacramento Valley's rice farmers was more or less forced upon them. Traditionally, farmers burned the rice stubble left in their fields after harvest. But that cheap and dirty practice was outlawed by the state in 1991.
Many took to flooding their fields to help the leftover rice straw decompose. This had the effect of creating what scientists call "surrogate wetlands," attractive to all manner of ducks and geese whose populations had dramatically shrunk because their winter habitat, the Sacramento Valley's wetlands, had been engineered out of existence with levees, canals and dams.
All that human intervention had allowed farms and cities to flourish, of course. But it was hell on birds and fish.
Transforming hundreds of thousands of once-burnt acres into wetlands helped revive an important migratory stop along the Pacific Flyway. It was good PR for farmers, who could also charge duck hunters hefty fees for using their land. The ducks tend to catch on quickly.
"They hang out in the wildlife refuges during the day where they can't be hunted," said Lewis Bair, general manager of Reclamation District 108, one of the state's oldest water districts, as we drove along the edge of a flooded rice field. "Then they move to these fields to eat after dark."
Several years ago, scientists at UC Davis got an idea: What if they figured out a way to get young salmon back into those wetlands, too? Before all the levees and canals were built, juveniles would come down the river from Redding, spilling over the banks into the flood plain to fatten up for the treacherous journey to sea. Instead of being shunted down the food-scarce Sacramento River as they are now, the fry could take some time to bask in the shallow, bug-filled waters of the rice paddies.
"We've done this with 5,000 or 10,000 fish, and there's no way to recover enough of them to draw scientific conclusions," said Katz. He'd like to do it with half a million fish, but has not been able to get permission from various government agencies. "There are a lot of politics involved, and it's sensitive."
Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Sacramento Valley rice farmers (whose water rights are nearly iron-clad) for mismanaging water at the expense of the endangered Chinook.
"There's a line that is being walked here," Katz said. "Fish need water, and there needs to be resolution about water rights and the Endangered Species Act. But in the meantime, there's lots of projects that are good for fish, good for the environment and good for farmers. And it's in everyone's interest to build those now."
My last stop of the day was a construction project on a private farm in the Yolo Bypass, a swath of farmland 40 miles long and 3 miles wide between Davis and Sacramento that protects Sacramento from severe flooding. Wallace Weir, a $13-million barrier, will allow for improved flood control, but will also prevent adult salmon, like the ones I saw, from straying to their deaths in drainage ditches.
The day after my visit, Katz told me, he returned to the ditch to find salmon in water so shallow, their backs were exposed. This makes them easy prey for river otters, who gorge on the eggs and leave the carcasses for coyotes, vultures and deer.
When off-course salmon reach Wallace Weir, they will be directed into a maze-like tank with a mechanical, perforated floor that will lift the heavy adults up to biologists who will pluck them out of the water with slings and load them into trucks for return to the Sacramento River.
It's not exactly a sustainable way to save the salmon, but given that human intervention has pushed them to the edge of extinction, it's the least we can do for now.