City officials are trying to determine who dumped cream-colored paint into a storm drain, clouding a swath of Ashland Creek Monday and highlighting the problem of illegal dumping in the city.
The city's public works and police department are investigating the illegal dumping, which could have occurred in any of dozens of storm drains that snake through downtown and empty into the creek behind the Plaza.
As of Tuesday afternoon, officials hadn't discovered who was responsible for the pollution, said John Peterson, the city's street supervisor.
• Report any storm drain dumping or problems with storm drains in your neighborhood by calling the Ashland Street Department at 541-488-5313.
• Dispose of household hazardous liquids, such as oil and antifreeze, properly. Contact Ashland Sanitary and Recycling at 541-482-1471 about the next collection date.
• Participate in Ashland's Curb to Creek, a storm drain marking program. Contact the North Mountain Park Nature Center at 541-488-6606.
"So far, it looks like it was dumped in one of the basins and finally made it through the storm system," he said in an e-mail message.
The person responsible could be cited by the city for illicit dumping and by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality for polluting the waters of the state, Peterson said.
The incident was a reminder that many residents don't realize the water in the city's storm drains flows directly to creeks without being treated first, said Dan Gunter, a city utility worker who was investigating the polluted creek Monday afternoon.
"Most people don't realize that what you put in your storm drain actually flows to the creek," he said.
The city is working to educate residents about illegal dumping. Last month volunteers began signing up to help affix metal placards to all 3,000 storm drains in Ashland, as part of a DEQ mandate. The 4-inch labels that say "No Dumping, Drains to Stream," have been affixed only on Oak Street so far.
"A lot of people think that those storm drains go to the treatment plant," said Linda Chesney, stewardship coordinator at the North Mountain Park Nature Center, which is organizing the volunteer effort. "I think if people knew there was a direct connection to the creeks, most would probably not be putting the paint or whatever in the storm drains.
"In a way, (Monday's incident) is kind of a good wake-up call for us — that these types of things are going on."
Police responded to reports of a white substance flowing from a storm drain behind Munchies restaurant on the Plaza at 1:30 p.m. Monday.
"It looked like pancake dough," said Ellen Grush, who was walking near the creek with her husband, Owen.
"It was obvious something was in the creek that shouldn't have been there," Owen Grush said.
By about 3 p.m., the cloudy substance had largely stopped flowing into Ashland Creek, which leads to Bear Creek and then to the Rogue River, Gunter said. It was unclear how much of the substance had flowed into the creek.
All storm drains above East Main Street downtown, from the top of Ridge Road to Gresham Street, empty into the creek behind the Plaza, Gunter said.
Initial lab tests of water samples suggest the milky substance was paint, Peterson said.
Paint can irritate, clog or destroy fish's gills; poison other animals and plants; contaminate soil and groundwater; and prevent light from entering the water, hindering plant photosynthesis and animals' ability to gather food, according to the city.
Many people are misinformed about the dangers paint, oil or antifreeze pose to riparian ecosystems, Chesney said.
"There are still people that aren't aware that it's not OK to dump things," she said. "I get people who ask, 'What if it's environmentally friendly paint?' Well, it's still paint and if you were a fish, you wouldn't want that in your gills."
The city decided to use volunteers to help affix the Curb to Creek placards over the next two years in order to educate more people, Chesney said.
Most locals care about protecting Ashland's parks and creeks, she said.
"It's a very important quality of life issue, so protecting them is something that I find most people feel is important and valuable," she said.
The city is seeking volunteers to help affix placards. For more information, call the North Mountain Park Nature Center at 541-488-6606.
Anyone with information on the illegal dumping incident is asked to contact the Ashland Police Department at 541-482-5211.
Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.