Cattle waste, failing septic systems and a lack of protective vegetation have taken their toll on the Applegate River watershed, prompting a plan approved this week by Jackson County to improve this home to spawning salmon and steelhead.

Cattle waste, failing septic systems and a lack of protective vegetation have taken their toll on the Applegate River watershed, prompting a plan approved this week by Jackson County to improve this home to spawning salmon and steelhead.

With more homes being built along the watershed that feeds the Applegate, government agencies are looking at more enforcement — and potentially fines — to prevent property owners from cutting down vegetation that destroys the riparian zone close to the riverbank.

"We need to levy some fines and let people know we're serious about this," said Lin Bernhardt, county natural resources manager.

The Applegate Water Quality Improvement Plan, which is one of many plans by government agencies to improve the Applegate watershed, could also lead to enforcement along other waterways in Jackson County. The county will be preparing a similar plan for Bear Creek in the future.

Roger King, who has been working on this

Roger King, who has been working on this issue for more than three years with the Southern Oregon Association of River Anglers, said the problems along the Applegate are just the tip of the iceberg. He said property owners have cut down vegetation on the Rogue River to improve their view but the lack of shade leads to higher water temperatures.

"It's one of the problems with low quantities of spring chinook coming up here," he said.

King said he's eager to hear how the county develops consequences for violators, but added, "My attitude is that it is a good first start."

The county estimates it will cost $10,000 annually for workshops and brochures designed to educate the public.

In addition, the plan proposes stricter enforcement of existing regulations such as retaining vegetation along a 50-foot setback from streams, particularly as part of any new home construction. In addition the county could soon start requiring a septic system check at the time a house is sold.

Though issues remain about enforcement and staffing, Bernhardt said the plan should lead to better efforts to improve riparian areas. "It's got some teeth," she said, but added, "We need to make it more enforceable."

Bernhardt said the county will have to change its existing ordinances to bring them more in line with the regulations outlined in the plan.

She said the county needs to both educate and penalize property owners, many of whom denude the area down to the waterway, planting grass or other non-native vegetation that doesn't create a canopy to keep water temperatures low and makes the area more vulnerable to erosion.

The new regulations, which are still subject to review by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, would require homeowners to submit a landscape plan for a riparian area to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for approval, said Bernhardt.

Tim Franklin, project manager for the Applegate Watershed Council, said the county plan mainly affects residential development, but plans from other government agencies are being developed to address the water problems in the Applegate that are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

In some stretches of the river, temperatures reach 70 degrees but should be 64 degrees or lower, which fish prefer, he said.

According to the county's plan, the river exceeds state water quality standards for sediments and bacteria, though more testing needs to be done to determine the source of these pollutants.

Some of the sediment problems are due to road construction and other activity around home sites. New roadways could not be built within the 50-foot setback unless they cross the waterway, the plan proposes.

Some recommendations in the plan also point to new ways of improving the habitat of rivers.

In the past, logs were removed because it was thought to improve fish passage, but now they are left in streams to prevent erosion, improve cover for fish and help the ecosystem.

Compared to other waterways in the county such as Bear Creek, the Applegate is not the most polluted river, but unless something is done, the water could get worse, said Franklin.

"It's not getting better," he said.

Franklin, who manages Yale Creek Farm, said even on his own farm, efforts are being made to improve the riverbanks along Yale Creek and the Little Applegate, both of which feed into the Applegate River.

Working with students from Ruch school, Franklin said that in January conifers were planted along the Little Applegate that will eventually help restore a riverbank damaged during a flood. Trees have also been planted along Yale Creek.

"This is a work in progress," said Franklin.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.