It’s 2 p.m. and time again to rescue fish at the Tracy Fish Collection Facility.
The plant sits amid tomato fields on a back channel of the San Francisco Bay Delta. Every two hours each day of the year, workers at the plant scoop fish of all sizes and varieties from the water. They’ve been doing it for the last 50 years.
If the fish weren’t scooped up, they would probably be sucked into the giant pumps downstream that pull water from the delta into the Delta Mendota Canal. Once “entrained” in the pumps, they would be ground to bits.
The canal diverts water to farms in the San Joaquin Valley. Its pumps create a current strong enough to reroute migrating fish. Without the collection plant, entire species might be sucked into extinction.
To prevent this, the fish are flushed into giant vats inside a corrugated-metal building.
Crane-operated buckets lift the fish from the vats onto the plant’s floor. There, workers reach inside the buckets and grab the fish. They are identified, counted, measured and flung into another tank.
Sitting on a nearby shelf are dozens of jars, each containing a dead fish of a different species. They are meant to help workers identify the fish they pull out of the buckets all day long.
“I used to fish,” said Richard Tegtmeier, a 14-year veteran of the plant, as he tossed a fat catfish that had probably seen better days. “Don’t like to anymore.”
The fish are eventually loaded into a water truck, which three times a day takes a load of them to a distant point in the delta and dumps them back into the water. Most of the fish survive the ride and, water officials hope, stay clear of the pumps in the future.
“Crude is probably the wrong word for it,” but the facility “is crude,” said Jeff McCracken, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman. “But it’s also successful.” Six to 7 million fish are saved each year.
The San Francisco Bay Delta is formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Most of the state’s fresh water flows into the delta and once made its way from there to the sea. Today, much of the flow is routed south in two aqueducts.
Besides the Delta Mendota Canal, the nearby California Aqueduct transports enough water to supply more than 2 million people in Southern California. The aqueduct has its own fish collection plant.
Environmentalists acknowledge that the plants save fish, although they believe that the delta and its wildlife would be in much better shape if less water were diverted each year.
At the Tracy plant, a giant set of louvered bars extends across the canal. The apparatus is designed to allow water, but not fish, to pass through. Turbulence from the louvers flushes fish into the holding tanks.
The flushing is violent enough to kill some fish. Nor do the louvers stop everything. Recently, a 5-foot-long green sturgeon got through. Plant officials suspect that millions of fish slip past the facility every year. The sturgeon was rescued with a net. Awaiting less lucky fish just a mile downstream are six 25,000-horsepower pumps, five of which are running at any given time. The pumps lift the water in the canal 197 feet up a hill and allow it to flow south to farmers.
On a typical day, members of more than 50 species living in the delta, including such natives as the minnow-like delta smelt, the steelhead trout and the chinook salmon, find their way to the collection plant. Many that aren’t native to the delta have also shown up. Goldfish have been pulled out of the water.
“Golden shiner,” said one of the workers, before flinging a fish into a holding tank. Next came a salmon and a striped bass. Besides saving fish, workers keep tabs on fish populations.
If too many representatives of endangered species appear at the facility, the pumps are shut down until the migrating fish clear this part of the delta on their way to the ocean.
Officials of the Bureau of Reclamation believe that the facility saves more than 90% of chinook salmon, which is classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But they concede that other species do not fare as well. Delta smelt routinely end up in the pumps.
The pumps are so powerful that they pull anything in the southern part of the Bay Delta toward them, including a host of dead and diseased fish too weak to fight the current.
Surprise guests help keep work at the plant interesting. A few years ago, workers found mitten crabs from Asia swarming over the equipment. The crabs mysteriously vanished within two years. Plant workers say the strangest creature to show up was a 2 1/2-foot-long Atlantic eel with scary teeth.
“There’s some nasty-looking fish that do come in here, because we entrain everything,” said Ron Silva, the facility manager. “That might tend to change your appetite toward fish. But, personally, if I go to a nice restaurant, I’ll get the salmon.”