SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — An effort is underway to save California’s salmon through a new pilot project designed to protect the endangered species.

The idea is to take advantage of the many local rice fields around the region because in those fields are nutrients that can turn an upstream battle to save the fish into an innovative flow to help them grow.

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The state’s salmon population has been on the decline. They used to have annual returns of 100,000 to 200,000 spawning adults. Now, a good year would be 10,000.

Years of drought, water diversions and other environmental factors have landed the fish on the endangered species list, but now, scientists are working with Northern California rice farmers to help bring the population back from the brink of extinction.

“We’re known as the environmental crop and so this sort of adds to our resume,” one rice farmer said.

For years, rice farmers have flooded their fields to provide habitat for migratory birds.

“It’s probably one of the great conservation success stories in American history,” a UC Davis scientist said.

So how could California’s rice crop help save salmon?

“Salmon are adapted for floodplains, a lot of people don’t realize that,” the UC Davis scientist said.

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UC Davis scientists say rice fields in the Yolo and Sutter bypasses could be intentionally flooded in the winter, after the crop has been harvested, to help naturally restore salmon populations.

“The idea is that they would come in and go out all on their own, there wouldn’t be trapping and moving fish around,” the scientist said.

Research shows the newborn salmon can feed off small aquatic animals that are abundant in the wetlands.

“These zooplankton are like the filet mignon for salmon,” the scientist said. “They just love eating them.”

“The fish grow very fast on rice fields and it’s because they exactly the food that they really need to grow big and fast,” the farmer said.

It’s an idea originally designed to provide waterfowl habitat now being used to help save other species.

“A lot of people have been looking at the success of those programs and saying ‘Hey, if you can do that for birds, why can’t you do that for fish?’ ” the scientist said.

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Rice growers say they have about 14,000 acres in the bypass that could be used, and federal funding is available from the United States Department of Agriculture to help them pay for the project.