Storm flooded foothills hatchery with 1.4 million trout. Fast work saved thousands.

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.

AA Moccasin Hatchery 05.JPG
Water from the emergency spillway at Moccasin Reservoir flooded the Mocassin Fish Hatchery on Thursday March 22, 2018. Andy Alfaro

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.

A California Department of Fish and Wildlife crew works to evacuate trout after the hatchery at Moccasin Reservoir was flooded. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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."