BRENTWOOD -- It was once said, "If you build it, he will come," and he did -- the "it" being a fish ladder, and the "he" being salmon.
It's been 54 years since salmon have migrated through the upper parts of Marsh Creek to spawn, but thanks to the efforts of environmentalists and state, county and city agencies, there will be a lot more salmon in the area in the not-so-distant future.
Brentwood residents John and Kathy Sierra were out on a walk along Marsh Creek earlier this month when they spied and filmed the first-known salmon to make it as far south as Balfour Road in more than 50 years.
Kathy estimated the fish to be at least 2.5-foot long and was quite surprised by it. "Oh my Lordy," she said as she was eyeing the fish. "You are big."
John Sierra, who teaches environmental and earth science at Freedom High School, credited a recent creek cleanup by a local conservation group for their unique find that day.
"This was especially exciting to members of the Friends of Marsh Creek Watershed," he said. "They spent the previous day or two clearing out a fish ladder downstream, and this is proof their hard work paid off."
FOMCW Executive Director Diane Burgis was also excited about the find.
"We were thrilled to see a salmon so far up Marsh Creek -- approximately three or four miles upstream in an area that is the best we have to offer in spawning grounds.
"Marsh Creek has a history of salmon and steelhead, (but) over the years the salmon population has declined and so has the salmon habitat," Burgis said.
Until two years ago salmon could only get to the drop structure, which is located just upstream of the Brentwood Waste Water Treatment Plant, she said.
According to FOMCW, scientific documentation shows the presence of Chinook salmon spawning in Marsh Creek more than 100 years ago. Pacific Ocean salmon would migrate through San Francisco Bay into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and then swim up Marsh Creek, one of the first tributaries they reach on their migration up the San Joaquin River.
"Fifty years ago flooding was a real issue for those living in the area," Burgis said. "Since this area was so important for agriculture one of the first flood control districts ever was formed. They took Marsh Creek and straightened it out, canalized it so that it could contain and convey the water out of the area and into the Delta."
It was during that time that the newly formed flood control district, in an effort to slow down water rushing through the area, decided to put in the six-foot-tall cement drop structure. Installed in 1958, the structure had winged walls on each side to help protect the banks and keep the water contained.
With that in place, though, no fish were able to make it upstream. The farthest they were able to travel was to the base of that cement drop.
Ten years ago, however, efforts began to develop a project that would help the salmon get access to upper Marsh Creek and provide better spawning areas and protection of juvenile salmon. The principal planners of the project came up against many challenges along the way that threatened the project, but strong community support and interest helped push the project along. These efforts resulted in the formation of Friends of Marsh Creek Watershed.
Eight years later, FOMCW, with the help of its partner agencies, finished the construction of the fish ladder, just one of many efforts by the conservation agency to help improve water quality and habitat restoration within the watershed.
"With the really wet storms and the rise in the creek, conditions are optimal for the salmon to swim upstream of the fish ladder," Burgis said of the recent storm conditions. "In November, we had documented salmon in Marsh Creek below the fish ladder, but until we got John's (Sierra) video, we hadn't seen salmon above the fish ladder."
Burgis explained that Marsh Creek typically has a late fall-winter run of salmon. The juveniles that hatch would remain in Marsh Creek through about April, and then hang out in the Delta before setting course to the ocean.
"They may go to Alaska or Japan -- thousands of miles," Burgis said. "Eventually, after about five years, instincts kick in and lead them back, usually to where they were born. They spawn and then typically die."
FOMCW urges people who find salmon along Marsh Creek or other tributaries to look, but don't touch.
"These fish are in the process of dying and are not food grade salmon," Burgis said. "By leaving them alone we are allowing them the best chance to reproduce and to help improve the salmon population."
The FOMCW will be conducting a Salmon Monitoring Walk from 1-3 p.m. Dec. 30. Those interested should arrive at Homecoming Park (2040 Homecoming Way in Brentwood) by 12:30 p.m., as the walk will begin at 1 p.m.