As both the rains and the fall salmon return, it's a good time for homeowners to consider what they can do to improve the health of Bear Creek, that beleaguered waterway running through so many Rogue Valley towns.
Urban neighborhoods can be hard on creeks and rivers — literally.
"If it rains in an open field, the ground soaks water in like a sponge," says Greg Stabach, natural resources project manager for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. But concrete driveways, parking lots, roads and rooftops dominate urban landscapes, and these impervious surfaces resist rainwater, funneling the lion's share of the water into storm drains, carrying fertilizers, paints, oils, chemicals and dog poop along with it. And storm drains lead directly to the creeks.
"Stormwater is not treated," Stabach stresses. Consequently, several pollutants impact Bear Creek, and although municipalities and the county are taking action to reduce both the volume of stormwater and the pollutants carried within it, individuals and small businesses can play vital roles.
A green lawn in the Rogue Valley in August is no easy feat, and it comes with a cost besides the one on your water bill.
"Don't over-fertilize, and don't over-water," says Stabach. Both can send fertilizers and pesticides into the storm drains. If you use a spreader to distribute fertilizer on a lawn, make sure to sweep up errant granules on the sidewalk and street.
Algae thrive on the nutrients in synthetic fertilizers and can deplete the available oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other creatures.
In addition, "algae slicks are not pleasant to look at or smell," says Heather Tugaw, Rogue basin specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
When we water the sidewalks, the extra flow ends up in Bear Creek instead of percolating into the soil, she says.
"We're not getting the recharge that we used to," she says, noting that dependence on groundwater increases during the summer, when creeks reach their lowest ebb.
In that vein, consider doing away with the lawn — or a portion of it — and replacing water-hogging grasses with native plants. Native shrubs and trees can tolerate our summer drought conditions better than non-natives, and require less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
Dog waste contains bacteria and other pathogens that can cause infections in humans. And like fertilizers, the waste adds to the nutrient load in creeks. Picking up after your dog is one of the easiest things you can do to help improve water quality. The impact is measurable. Rogue Riverkeepers recently conducted a study to identify sources of bacteria in Ashland Creek and the Talent Irrigation District canal. Levels of bacteria met standards as the canal entered Ashland but fell below them as the canal left town.
"Something's happening during that three-mile stretch," says Bill Meyers of the DEQ, noting that quite a few people walk their dogs along Ashland's ditch trail. Regular maintenance of septic systems will also keep bacteria counts low and our creeks safe for swimming and fishing.
Washing the family car in the driveway may be a pleasurable pastime, but it can also send soaps and oils into the storm drains. Commercial car washes tie into the sewer system, ensuring all that greasy, soapy water will be treated at the wastewater treatment plant, not in Bear Creek.
"If you want to wash your car yourself, use non-phosphate soaps," suggests Stabach. "And consider washing your car on the lawn rather than on the driveway or street."
Maintaining your vehicle can help keep chemicals and oil out of the creek. According to the Portland-based Clean Rivers and Streams, a single pint of motor oil entering stormwater can create a football field-sized slick.
A heavy rain can flatten an unprotected pile of topsoil in minutes. Construction sites are notorious sources of sediment and debris, says Tugaw.
"Fine materials can cover fish eggs and suffocate them." Sediment also clouds the water, making it harder for fish to find food. Covering bare soil with tarps and fencing-off sensitive areas can minimize erosion from construction sites; retaining stormwater on-site can minimize erosion caused by flooding.
Water gains tremendous energy during storms. Ample riparian vegetation and a creek's sinuous nature normally help dissipate some of that energy, but like so many urban waterways, much of Bear Creek is channelized. Development on both sides of the creek leaves water with no other place to go.
"Water acts like a bulldozer during major storm events," says Stabach. The force can cut deep incisions in the creek bed and release sediment into the water.
There are several ways to help reduce flood-caused erosion. The easiest is to direct downspouts onto pervious areas, or divert the flow into a rain barrel.
"Rain barrels collect that first flush," says Tugaw. The initial burst of run-off often contains the highest proportion of pollutants, especially if it hasn't rained in a long time.
"If you hold the water for a little while, the flood peaks aren't as severe," adds Stabach. Rain gardens and swales — depressions landscaped with water-tolerant plants — are another way to keep water on-site. They also filter pollutants, much like wetlands do.
If you're considering remodeling or building a house and will be installing a driveway or parking areas, consider pervious concrete, porous asphalt or interlocking pavers, which include "voids" on the edges where water can seep in.
Next time you walk by a storm drain with a fish decal stamped next to it, you'll know you're contributing to a healthier watershed — for the fish and for all of us.
Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.