Every summer, when stream flows decline and bacteria levels rise, county officials send warnings telling people to stay out of several local creeks to avoid getting sick. But environmental measures taken today may ensure all creeks will be swimmable and fishable year-round someday.
That's the prediction of Greg Stabach, Rogue Valley Council of Government's natural resources program coordinator, who recently put out a list of streams where bacteria counts are too high for contact recreation, such as swimming and wading.
The list this year includes Bear Creek, Neil Creek, Ashland Creek, Griffin Creek and Jackson Creek.
People are warned to avoid contact with the following local streams because of high bacterial counts:
Bear Creek, from Talent downstream
Neil Creek, east of Ashland
Ashland Creek, below Ashland's sewage treatment plant
Griffin Creek, Jacksonville
Jackson Creek, Jacksonville and Central Point
Other creeks may develop unacceptable bacteria levels; as a general rule, says Stabach, people should avoid contact if in doubt.
Ashland Creek, which flows through Lithia Park, is tested weekly and is clean enough for contact recreation at two allowed spots, the reservoir at the top of the park and the wading pool by the playground, says park Superintendent Bruce Dickens. The main problem area for Ashland Creek is below the city's sewage treatment plant, near where it empties into Bear Creek.
Bear Creek is affected by numerous sources, including agricultural and urban runoff as it stretches the length of the valley and is fed by numerous streams. While its condition has improved from "very poor" to "poor," Bear Creek has a long way to go, notes Stabach.
But Bear Creek and other area creeks are showing improvement under an effort focused mainly on educating people to keep fecal matter of animals and humans out of storm drains and agricultural runoff areas.
At all levels of government, he says, there are tree-plantings, watershed and channel restoration projects, reduction of impervious surfaces (which promote runoff), and reductions in the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Farmers are using spray irrigation and turning it off before it begins to run into streams.
Cities and the county can cite violators, but they try to emphasis education instead, Stabach says — unless there are gross violations or construction work is putting dirt in streams.
Summer bacteria grows because of fecal matter from agriculture, failing septic tanks and illegal or unintentional runoff into storm drains, says Bill Meyers, Rogue Basin coordinator for water quality. The dumping of RV sewage tanks into streams also contributes, he adds.
"That is very egregious, but we also get it from people not cleaning up after their dogs, especially along water canals," he says. "Farmers have to make sure water isn't running through manure piles. We discourage flood irrigation. It's all going to end up in Bear Creek.
"It all comes down to poo, ours and animals, and that includes raccoons, rats and other animals," Meyers says.
But the annual posting of bacteria-polluted streams in the valley "is not going to happen forever," Stabach insists.
"Under the Clean Water Act, our goal is to make all water swimmable and fishable," he says. "Bear Creek between 2000 and 2010 was listed as the most improved body of water in the state. It's steadied off since then. The Rogue River is always good."
RVCOG's rules of thumb are: pick up after pets, have toddlers wear swim diapers, don't dump kitty litter or manure near streams and inspect septic systems for repairs. If in doubt about a stream, call Stabach at 541-423-1370 or see www.rvcog.org.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.