TUOLUMNE COUNTY — The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is praising its Moccasin Creek Hatchery workers after they saved nearly a quarter of the hatchery's trout when water from a nearby dam flooded the facility.
The Moccasin Reservoir dam was in imminent danger of failing March 22 when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — which manages the reservoir — ordered the evacuation of the trout hatchery and Moccasin Point Marina after an unusually heavy downpour raised the reservoir's water level and the 60-foot-tall earthen dam developed a leak.
Water from the small reservoir's two emergency spillways inundated the hatchery, which had about 1.4 million trout — from eggs to fish ready to be caught — at the time of the evacuation, according to a Fish and Wildlife Facebook post.
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Fish and Wildlife spokesman Peter Tira said the nine hatchery workers had to evacuate quickly but were allowed to go back Friday afternoon to assess the damage and get their belongings (eight live in hatchery housing and the ninth lives nearby because raising trout is a 24-7 operation) but stayed until early Saturday to rescue the trout, which officials initially thought would be a total loss.
The rescue was a race against time. The reservoir is the hatchery's water source and the SFPUC started draining the reservoir Friday to inspect and repair it. Moccasin Reservoir is part of the commission's Hetch Hetchy water system that provides drinking water to the Bay Area.
Hatchery office technician Lindsay Detrick said the water ran out about 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
She said several Fish and Wildlife wardens and a couple of staff from the Fish and Wildlife La Grange field office helped in the rescue. She said it was hard work because the workers lifted over 40,000 pounds of trout over 12 hours. The hatchery's waters were muddy and choked with debris and dead fish.
"Our employees worked tirelessly," Detrick said, " ... and they did a fantastic job."
Tira said workers transported 27 truckloads of trout from the hatchery to nearby Don Pedro Reservoir. The fish are expected to survive and thrive.
"We are grateful for the safety of our employees and the surrounding community," Fish and Wildlife said in a Facebook post. "And we are yet again awed and inspired by the bravery and commitment of our colleagues in a crisis."
Tira said the hatchery suffered extensive damage and said it was too soon to say when it would reopen. Detrick said six of hatchery homes are on higher ground and are fine, but she said the two on lower ground have not yet had water service restored and have mud and dead fish in their crawl spaces.
"It's not smelling too nice," she said.
The fish are primarily rainbow trout but include California golden trout, brown trout and Pilot Peak Lahontan cutthroat trout.
And the rescue work continues. Hatchery workers and other Fish and Wildlife employees have been catching trout trapped in pools of water left after the flood waters receded and releasing them into Moccasin Creek.
Tira said the trout are sterile and are planted in area lakes, rivers, streams and creeks for anglers. He said this also helps communities that rely on recreational fishing.
He said the rescue was important: "These fish belong to the people of California and the residents of the Central Valley."
And if anglers want to find them, they will know where to look — Don Pedro Reservoir.