Drought derails Casa fish hatchery

Unless it is needed in an emergency, the Casa Grande High School fish hatchery will sit idle this school year. There is simply not enough water due to the drought.

Students in the Casa Grande United Anglers program annually work with the California Department of Fish and Game at the Warm Springs Dam Fish Hatchery to raise fish from eggs until they are large enough to be released. Students initially worked with salmon, but two years ago switched to rearing steelhead trout. This year's drought forced the students to make a difficult decision.

"There was a question as to whether or not the Warm Springs Hatchery would have enough eggs for us," explained Dan Hubacher, Casa Grande teacher and United Anglers advisor. "The outlook is pretty frightening. As of the first of the year, Warm Springs had received just 15 returning adults. The hatchery at Coyote Creek had received only one adult male.

Things are also looking bleak in Petaluma-area creeks. "By the first of the year, we were noticing big red warming flags," Hubacher explained. "There were no holding spots in the creeks and what water there was, was stagnant, which brings down the level of dissolved oxygen the fish need."

After the holiday break, it was decision time. Casa Grande had its hatchery equipment up and running, but the anglers had to decide if they wanted to pursue raising fish this year, even if eggs were available. "After a discussion, the students decided it was in the best interest of all to shut the water off and pass on the juveniles this year," Hubacher said.

"It definitely hurt us," said junior Kerrianne McCarthy, who has been a part of the United Angler program since her freshmen year at Casa. "We decided it was more important that Warm Springs get the eggs than us. We'll still be working with fish, just not in the same way."

She also pointed out that, if the situation changes or an emergency occurs, Casa Grande can get its hatchery quickly back into operation.

Hubacher noted that water conservation was also a factor in the decision to close down the hatchery, which requires a good deal of water to keep the holding tanks fresh. "We had to consider both the fish and the water situation," he said. "We are looked at as a model for conservation. How could we justify the water use?"

Instead of raising fish, United Anglers students will focus on finding fish that have been able to return to their spawning ground. They will be surveying Adobe, San Antonio and Lynch creeks in hopes of finding nesting fish. "The next couple of weeks will be our best chance of seeing adults show up," Hubacher said.

Even without fish, the information the students collect on the drought-plagued creeks will be important.

"We can collect a lot of valuable data," Hubacher explained. "This will allow us to develop a baseline data for an extreme drought year. We haven't had a plan for something like this for a hundred years. The data we collect will allow us to put in place a backup plan."

The high school students will be helped in their data collection by two interns from the National Marine Fisheries Services.

The lack of rain may also impact Hubacher's opportunity to place one or more anglers into summer intern positions at the Warm Springs hatchery. "We'll have to wait and see if they are going to need additional help this summer," he said.

The February rain has helped some, but not nearly enough. "After the rain I went to the top of Adobe Creek and the water was pouring down," McCarthy observed. "But if we don't keep getting water, it is just going to dry up."

For more information on the Casa Grande United Anglers, visit their Facebook page at United Anglers Casa Grande Inc.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)