MEDFORD — Over-spray of a controversial herbicide by city crews might have involved more areas along city waterways than originally believed.
An investigator for the state Department of Agriculture said this week that an ongoing investigation shows areas of the city, largely along the Bear Creek Greenway and at least a pair of tributaries, could have been affected by improper spraying of the herbicide Garlon 4.
Residents along Larson Creek and Greenbrook Street first reported that blackberry spraying by city crews along a footpath had resulted in residual spraying of nearby foliage, which began to yellow and show signs of dying within hours.
In the same time span, residents near St. Mary's School and Donahue-Frohnmayer Park, in addition to dog owners who use the Medford dog park, reported similar concerns.
Greenbrook Street resident Beth Powell said she watched a 50-foot, 35-year-old wisteria hedge shrivel and begin to die, while neighbor Isaiah Hurney said he lost cherry trees, vegetable beds, roses and landscaping in his backyard.
City officials confirmed that parks crews sprayed near Larson Creek — both to combat blackberry growth and reduce vegetation to deter transients from camping.
Officials from the Department of Agriculture arrived within days of the Larson Creek incident to collect soil samples from the site to try and determine whether the creek had been affected.
Days before initial reports from Larson Creek, pet owners who use the dog park and Bear Creek Park off Highland and Barnett said they noticed sudden and dramatic yellowing of foliage in areas near the dog park.
Steve and Paula Chase, who take their dog Bella to the dog park almost daily, noticed branches on large trees and a wide swatch of foliage appear to die almost overnight. Steve Chase said he was hopeful that rain would remove residual spray in the area, "but then you have to worry about it going into the creek."
In a neighborhood near St. Mary's School, resident Russell Phillips said he jogs on a footpath between Black Oak Drive and Murphy Road. During a run, he said, he noticed crews removing vegetation. Days later, Phillips said, he noticed additional areas where vegetation had yellowed and shriveled.
"The dead foliage was not limited to blackberries, bushes and grasses on the ground. Some small trees were dead and the lower parts of larger trees. Some trees on what appears to be private or commercial property were also affected. It would be easy to imagine, being so close to a stream, that what was sprayed did get into the water and was washed away," said Phillips, who worried that his 9-month-old son could be exposed to whatever chemicals were used.
"At least why not let people know they're going to be doing that so they know in advance. It was amazing how much dead foliage there was so quickly — it was just night and day. It's very concerning."
Paul Khokar, investigator for the state Department of Agriculture, said that results from soil samples taken in recent weeks could take another month. Khokar confirmed that that his agency, in addition to the Larson Creek neighborhood, had reviewed other areas in the city where over-spray could have killed nearby foliage and trees, including areas around the dog park adjacent to Bear Creek Park along Highland Drive.
"We are moving forward with the city of Medford, and we have had quite a few discussions with them and we will probably have a bigger conversation about their use of pesticides near water," Khokar said.
City officials said the herbicide was used according to labeling but indicated a change in practices might be in order.
Khokar said state officials were keeping their eyes on a suit between the state of Washington and the EPA, where specific buffers could soon be required between spray areas and waterways due to concerns with triclopyr, the main ingredient in Garlon 4.
As for Larson Creek neighbors, Powell, who said her wisteria "never even wilted" during previous summer heat waves, said this week she had filed an "Intent to Sue" with city officials.
Powell said she was eager to learn the results of soil testing done near her backyard.
"I just don't believe that my wisteria, after all those years of being just fine, would just shrivel up and die all of a sudden," said Powell.
Medford resident Twanissa Cox, walking her dog Willie at Bear Creek Park Friday, said she was startled by the large areas of dying trees and bushes.
"It's definitely concerning, not only because it could have got in the water and killed the fish, but because dogs get into everything. They're down there with their noses sniffing around," she said.
"Seriously, is this really the only alternative to just asking the bums to move out? To just spray them with chemicals and make them sick?"
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org