Count Lesley Adams among Ashlanders who get embarrassed when Lithia Park's summer visitors marvel at the park's thick forests and emerald lawns, then wonder quizzically what the sign in the Ashland Creek wading area means.

Count Lesley Adams among Ashlanders who get embarrassed when Lithia Park's summer visitors marvel at the park's thick forests and emerald lawns, then wonder quizzically what the sign in the Ashland Creek wading area means.

The seasonal sign inevitably warns against contact with creek water tainted by E. coli bacteria.

It's a chronic summer condition in the creek — as predictable as the stream of tourists walking nightly to the adjacent Shakespeare festival.

"It's extremely ironic," says Adams, of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. "Lithia Park is the crown jewel of this town, but you can't put your feet in the creek when it's hot."

Adams is among a group of city leaders and citizen-scientists who are looking to pinpoint the source of the E. coli bacteria so it can be flushed away and the creek's water quality can be restored to levels matching the park's lush surroundings.

Adams is leading a group of trained volunteers who will regularly test Ashland Creek's water all summer at seven locations within the park in hopes of isolating where the bacteria enters the creek.

Possible sources include storm drains that funnel surface runoff from nearby neighborhoods, the park's swim reservoir and a Talent Irrigation District canal that bisects the creek.

The tests might not reveal the actual source of the E. coli, which could come from a leaky septic or sewage system, urban runoff or even raccoon feces flushed out of storm drains during spring rains, Adams says.

But the goal is to at least isolate where it reaches the creek and follow it from there, she says.

"I'm not necessarily thinking we're going to find a smoking gun this summer," Adams says. "But getting more data and understanding more about the creek could help us at least better understand the problem."

Past water-quality tests have failed to pinpoint a source but they indicate it reaches the creek somewhere within the park.

So Ashland officials in recent years have done water sampling only to determine when the water's bacteria load reaches unhealthy levels, triggering the avoid-the-water signs.

The city is a partner in the current project, which includes 26 trained volunteers, including people with backgrounds in hydrology, chemistry and other sciences.

"We have a new target now," says city Public Works Director Mike Faught. "It's not just informing people. We're trying to fix this."

"This is a long-term commitment," Faught says. "We're going to chase it until we figure it out, and we have a great group of volunteers doing it."

In 2007, the lower 2.8 miles of Ashland Creek was listed by the state Department of Environmental Quality as in violation of state water-quality standards for fecal coliform bacteria under the federal Clean Water Act.

But Ashland Creek is not alone.

More than 120 miles of Bear Creek basin streams carry that onerous moniker, says Adams, who believes the study's format can be replicated elsewhere to pinpoint bacteria sources in other streams.

Adams has borrowed testing equipment from the Bear Creek Watershed Council and the DEQ, whose employees trained volunteers on proper testing procedures.

Several times each Wednesday and Saturday, teams will test water samples for pH, conductivity and turbidity. Then a water sample will be collected and sent to a Southern Oregon University biology lab for the E. coli tests.

JoAnne Eggers, a city parks commissioner, is one of those volunteers.

"To finally be able to track this down is exciting," says Eggers, an Ashland resident since 1973.

People who ingest E. coli-infected water can develop abdominal cramping, diarrhea and nausea. It is most dangerous to younger and older people, as well as those with poor immune systems.

Adams says the teams will move upstream out of the park if testing shows the creek water already is tainted before it hits the park's upper boundary.

If tests determine it's from a particular storm drain, crews will chase the runoff uphill until they can pinpoint a source, if possible, Adams says.

"If our data show something different, we'll adjust the study," she says.

A report is expected in November, Adams says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.