The trickle down effect of what we waste pollutes our water supply

When Andy Huppert pops the metal lid off a southwest Medford storm drain, he's never surprised at what he sees.

Often, it's bushels of leaves and grass clippings. Sometimes there is a baseball or a basketball inside. Often, it's soap from a nearby sparkling car. Occasionally it's a chunk of plywood that would take Houdini-like maneuvers to remove without help.

"Sometimes we can't figure out how some of these big things even got in there," says Huppert, a technician who cleans drains for the Medford Public Works Department. "Sometimes there are boards in there so big we have to cut them to get them out."

Teresa Huntsinger would rather Medford residents simply cut it out all together when it comes to accidentally, or intentionally, allowing anything other than rainwater to enter city storm drains and, ultimately, the Bear Creek Basin.

Huntsinger is the point-person for a statewide campaign to curb "non-point" pollution from Oregon's urban neighborhoods that can make streams like Bear Creek and its salmon-bearing tributaries unhealthy for native fish and people.

Simple measures like washing your car on the front lawn so your grass soaks up the extra water, sweeping driveways instead of hosing them down and making sure your truck doesn't leak oil or engine coolant can make a big difference, she says.

Soap, engine oil, coolant — these things eventually end up flowing down gutters and into storm drains, all of which dump into the Bear Creek Basin, a key spawning and rearing area for Rogue River salmon and steelhead.

"When people think about water quality, they often think about sewage-treatment plants," says Huntsinger, water quality program director for the Oregon Environmental Council. "But a lot of the water pollution comes from all over the landscape. That means everybody needs to play a role in cleaning it up."

Huntsinger will be in Medford on Monday headlining a workshop on how people can help improve water quality by making little changes inside and outside their homes. The workshop will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the new Jefferson Nature Center in the U.S. Cellular Community Park.

It's not rocket science and barely brain surgery. What you throw, blow or hose at home ultimately finds its way into the 155 miles of storm drains that snake beneath Medford.

Keep a close eye so as not to overwater lawns, which leads to runoff in the street, and go easy on the grass chemicals. Detach downspouts so the water spills onto your grass or garden instead of straight to the gutter.

Sweep driveways instead of hosing them. Be vigilant about cleaning animal waste, especially during rainy months, so fecal material doesn't hit the creek.

"A lot of these are pretty simple things, but it all adds up," Huntsinger says.

Medford city code technically bans residents from allowing anything but water to flow into storm drains. Parking a leaky truck on the street can lead to a violation, as can landscapers' notorious practice of blowing dust or clippings from parking lots into streets.

In the past, carpet cleaners who ran their discharge hoses into drains and construction workers who overloaded gravel and hosed off concrete pumpers in the street barely received second glances from people.

But more and more complaints are pouring into Medford' public works department and being turned over to code enforcement officers, says Ron Forsyth, city public works supervisor.

"I definitely think people are more aware of it," Forsyth says. "Ignorance just doesn't cut it any more."

The last line of defense against ignorance is the Vac-Con, a leviathan shop-vac that keeps Medford's storm drains clear.

The truck, which cost Medford taxpayers $239,600 in 2004, regularly makes the rounds Hoovering up drain debris.

First, technician Dennis Bobo yanks open the cover and shovels out yard signs, empty water bottles and the occasional dead cat before using the Vac-Con's high-pressure hose to pump water up the pipe to loosen sediment.

The water is slowly sucked back in, and the ensuing dirt is sucked into a tank that captures about 10 cubic yards of muck per day, Bobo says.

"There really is no end," Bobo says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.