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MailTribune.com
  • Drought forces shift in plant restoration effort

    Bear Creek project group solves water-rights dilemma with irrigation water from Medford
  • Drought was already making it tough — and Oregon water law has made it tougher — for Jim Hutchins and his band of volunteers to keep alive their five-year effort to restore the banks of Bear Creek in downtown Medford.
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  • Drought was already making it tough — and Oregon water law has made it tougher — for Jim Hutchins and his band of volunteers to keep alive their five-year effort to restore the banks of Bear Creek in downtown Medford.
    Hutchins had to rethink his summer plan to use buckets of creek water twice weekly to hand-douse thousands of native trees and brush planted over the years to restore the creek's damaged riparian zone, because it violates water-rights laws, authorities say. "We've got 2,700 of those plants to hand-water," Hutchins said Friday.
    Hutchins scrambled Friday to find a new and legal water source and quickly found help from the Medford Parks and Recreation Department.
    Beginning Monday, Hutchins and his volunteer waterers will be able to tap into the city's irrigation system for the water they'll still deliver in buckets — but this time legally.
    The plants line the creek between 10th and Jackson streets.
    "We've been doing this for five years and didn't realize there was a water-rights issue," Hutchins said. "But this will work out fine. We'll keep them alive no matter what. I'm always an optimist."
    Oregon law severely restricts use of surface water such as creeks without water rights, which are tied to individual lands. Lands with the oldest water rights on file get their full allotment before lands with younger and so-called "junior" filings get their water rights.
    Organizations such as Hutchins' Oregon Stewardship can qualify for a limited license to irrigate from streams at specific projects and for specific periods of time, Jackson County Watermaster Travis Kelly said.
    But those water withdrawals can be done only after all the water rights on that particular stream are filled, Kelly said.
    But Bear Creek does not qualify for that process. It has been legally withdrawn from any new water rights because the creek already has more water rights on the books than water in the stream, Kelly said.
    Kelly added that there are no exemptions for bucket-watering to sidestep water-rights laws, which are enforced on a complaint basis.
    Kelly called it an "unfortunate scenario" when water law runs afoul of stream-enhancement projects that actually benefit the water and habitat there.
    "It really hurts the ability of well intended projects to get help from streams," Kelly said.
    The Oregon Stewardship project, which has benefited from dozens of high-school work parties and a half-dozen senior projects, had been thriving, with hundreds of native trees and bushes planted to stabilize the bank and provide water-cooling shade.
    The project has seen great growth in part because Hutchins' design took into account all the variables that often cause one-shot riparian planting efforts to fail.
    The area was cleared of non-native blackberries and replanted systematically. It includes some sprinklers that water young plants trying to survive under the Interstate 5 viaduct.
    For Hutchins, it's been a showcase project for what local high-schoolers can do to help the embattled stream if given the access and a little financial help for tools and plants.
    Hutchins spends half a day each Monday and Friday weeding, shoveling dirt and checking and clearing the bioswales that naturally filter dirt and petroleum from viaduct runoff before it reaches the creek.
    During the summer, he has added one day of hand-watering by bucket with creek water.
    This year, he started the hand-watering earlier and bumped it up to Mondays and Fridays to ensure that the plants would survive and take hold.
    "We're still at about a 94 percent survival rate, which is good," Hutchins said. "We're shooting for at least 90 (percent)."
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman
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