If you see a slim, gray-haired man earnestly trimming bushes along Bear Creek, you might want to stop and talk to him.
With his pruning shears by his side, Jim Hutchins of Oregon Stewardship has led the way in turning Bear Creek from one of the most polluted waterways in Oregon into one that is a little more acceptable to fish and other wildlife.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s improved,” Hutchins said.
For the past 10 years, Hutchins and his team of South Medford High School students have toiled away, pulling out blackberry bushes, picking up tons of trash and replanting with native vegetation.
He estimates he’s done about five miles along the banks of Bear Creek, but with 14 miles of riparian corridor on either side of the waterway through the city, he’s still got a ways to go.
But the can-do stewardship of Bear Creek championed by Hutchins has been catching on.
On April 21, Earth Day, local businesses and organizations have partnered to hold a community-by-community cleanup effort along Bear Creek.
The event will run from 9 a.m. to noon, with check-in at 8:30 at seven locations: McAndrews Road adjacent to the Greenway; Hawthorne Park; Alba Drive near Barnett Road; Coyote Trails Nature Center at U.S. Cellular Community Park in south Medford; Blue Heron Park in Phoenix; Lynn Newbry Park in Talent; and Ashland Creek Park, 27 E. Hersey St., Ashland.
For details and to sign up, see bearcreekstewards.org.
In addition to Hutchins’ efforts, other organizations have been working to keep pollutants from flowing into Bear Creek, which salmon use for spawning.
Since 1998, when the state deemed the 26.3-mile waterway “impaired,” phosphorus levels have dropped.
A number of steps have been taken to lessen pollutants in the creek, helping its water quality improve from “very poor” to “poor,” according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Irrigation districts serving Medford and Talent have reduced sediments. The Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District has helped farmers with management practices that reduce contamination from flowing into the waterway.
In 2002, Ashland upgraded its wastewater plant to remove phosphorus.
Other cities, including Medford, have cut the amount of runoff flowing into the creek, also reducing phosphorus levels.
Despite water cleanup and improvements to vegetation, Bear Creek has a long way to go before it’s a more inviting habitat for fish and humans.
“It takes a while for those various pieces to become effective,” said Craig Tuss, project coordinator for the Natural Resources Department of Rogue Valley Council of Governments. “In a lot of cases, it will take a decade or two decades.”
While many miles of blackberries have been removed, many more need to be eradicated.
Last fall, 20 acres of blackberries and other invasive species were removed near The Expo by Community Justice workers, and 300 trees and 1,200 willow stakes were planted by Eagle Scouts.
Even with thousands of creek-friendly plants in the ground, it takes a long time for trees to mature to the point where they shade the creek, lowering water temperatures.
“I’ve been working here for 17 years and think Bear Creek is a lot better, but it has a long way to go,” said Greg Stabach, water quality manager with Rogue Valley Council of Governments.
Over the next 10 years, he said, Bear Creek will continue to improve as it gets more shaded and more pollution sources are found and remedied.
Eugene Wier, restoration project manager for The Freshwater Trust, said Bear Creek is considered one of the most improved bodies of water in the state.
He said a number of challenges remain to effectively get rid of invasive species and pollution and to develop planting practices that satisfy competing interests.
Along Lazy Creek in Medford, a stretch of riparian area now boasts thick native vegetation, which helps keep the waterway cool.
“If you crouch down, you’ll see under the vegetation that it is loaded with trash, and that there are people sleeping under there,” Wier said. “It’s the exact kind of habitat for people to hide.”
Many cities are eager to plant native species but prefer to have a more open feel that deters homeless people from camping or makes it more difficult to collect the trash, he said.
A big proponent of community trash pickup days, Wier said planting the right native species is important for many communities.
Certain kinds of trees or plantings can impede water flow, which is a concern for communities worried about flooding, Wier said.
Blackberry eradication is a daunting effort for most communities, but local laws can sometimes impede this effort, he said.
After blackberries have been ripped out, workers usually follow up in the late fall with an herbicide. After about three years of herbicide applications, the blackberries have been eradicated, Wier said.
However, Ashland has banned the use of the herbicide, which has the active ingredient found in Roundup. Other communities have considered similar bans, but Wier said he and others have persuaded them not to take that action.
“We could overhaul the entire Bear Creek corridor if we could use an herbicide as a tool and have community buy-in,” Wier said.
While improving Bear Creek substantially may be years away, Hutchins continues to work with what he’s got.
He doesn’t like seeing trash strewn amongst his native plantings, but he quickly picks up the messes.
In addition, homeless people help him pull shopping carts out of the creek or pick up trash.
“I’ve had more help from the homeless than any other citizen,” he said.
Still, he’s mindful that the work he’s doing also discourages homeless people from camping along the creek. He’s had to cut back native bushes that had grown up enough to make a hiding spot for illegal camping.
Looking across the creek, Hutchins likes what he sees.
“There’s a lot more critters out here,” he said. “We’ve got ducks, otters, beavers, and the chinook salmon are spawning along here.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.