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For California salmon, summer of truck rides, bucket lifts

LAGUNITAS, Calif. (AP) — What do you do when you have 30 million young salmon ready for their big journeys downstream, but drought and development have dried your riverbeds to sauna rocks? In California this year, you give the fish a ride.

State and federal wildlife agencies in California are deploying what they say is the biggest fish-lift in the state’s history through this month, rolling out convoys of tanker trucks to transport a generation of hatchery salmon downstream to the San Francisco Bay. California is locked in its driest four-year stretch on record, making the river routes that the salmon normally take to the Pacific Ocean too warm and too shallow for them to survive.

“It’s huge. This is a massive effort statewide on multiple systems,” said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which since February has been rolling out four to eight 35,000-gallon tanker trucks filled with baby salmon on their freeway-drive to freedom.

“We’re going to unprecedented drought,” Lehr said. “We’re forced to extreme measures.”

Drought and heavy use of water by farms and cities have devastated key native fish in California. Last year, for example, 95 percent of the state’s winter-run of Chinook salmon died. The fish is vital for California’s fishing industries and for the food chain of wildlife.

For the first time, all five big government hatcheries in California’s Central Valley for fall-run Chinook California salmon — a species of concern under the federal Endangered Species Act — are going to truck their young, release-ready salmon down to the Bay, rather than release them into rivers to make the trip themselves.

And California’s wild native fish should pack a sandwich and something to read; they’ll be spending a lot of the summer on the road too.

“Bone dry. Bone dry,” said fish biologist Don Portz of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, who is six years into an effort to restore the southernmost salmon stream in the U.S., the Central Valley’s San Joaquin River.

Drought, a dam and heavy use of the river’s water for irrigation have dried 60 miles of the San Joaquin. For the young salmon, whose life cycle for millions of years has involved travel from the river back and forth to the San Francisco Bay, that now means a 1

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