OROVILLE, Calif. - Monday, one million of the Chinook salmon that were rescued from the Oroville Dam spillway incident returned home to the Feather River.
When the erosion formed in the Oroville Dam's primary spillway, lake overflow down the emergency spillway brought trees and other debris straight into the Feather River.
To protect the fish that call that river home, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife removed millions of Chinook salmon from the Feather River hatchery on February 9. Ever since over five million Chinook salmon have been living at the Thermalito Annex Hatchery.
"This hatchery was literally a lifeboat for five million fish. They would not have survived at the Feather River hatchery," said Andrew Hughan, public information officer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Monday, one million of the spring-run Chinook salmon were sucked into a tube, then into a truck to be transported back to the Feather River. These rare little fish have had quite a journey.
"When the water started coming over the top of the emergency spillway the water in the Feather River became, turbid is the scientific term, but [it means] 'Willy Wonka' water, which wouldn't support fish life so we had to get them out of the hatchery and get them over here," Hughan explained.
CDFW said the river is now high and moving fast enough for staff to feel confident that the spring-run Chinook will be pushed to the Sacramento River, but they're still waiting to release the remaining one million.
"We'll release the rest as we get through this rain cycle and as conditions improve," said Hughan.
These fish are only about six months old and are the size of a finger. "This is a specific DNA strain of Chinook salmon," said Hughan. "You see Chinook salmon all over the place, but these spring run salmon are special fish. So we need to do everything we can and what's really important is that this is the only hatchery that raises these fish."
It will be years before scientists know whether all this effort will pay off, which will be determined by if the fish survive in the ocean and return to the Feather River to spawn.
But for now, officials said the special treatment is worth it for this special species.