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Act Locally: Monitoring the use of chemical pesticides in our Valley (Part 1)

Having considered spurious on-line accusations regarding Jackson County Vector Control’s use of insecticides along the Talent Irrigation District (TID) ditches in the last installment of Act Locally, I now set out to identify who I had previously witnessed spraying some chemical along the Ashland TID. The short answer turns out to be that the culprit was not a government agency, as presumed, but most likely a professional pest control company contracted by a private property owner upon whose land the TID canal crosses.

While constrained by government regulations, property owners are legally permitted to use certain approved herbicides at will. The longer answer contains many details relevant to Ashlanders. Over the next several Act Locally installments, I will unpack these issues, beginning with management of the TID.

Inaccurate information is not the exclusive domain of social media. In more 40 phone calls, I received all types of misinformation from well-meaning government employees. Much of this confusion can be attributed to the fact that local waterways, trails and roads come under the jurisdiction of multiple state, county and city agencies.

While the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA; not the Departments of Health Policy, or Public Health, or Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), or EPA, all of which were suggested) is the agency which sets and enforces regulations regarding the use of all pesticides (meaning both herbicides and insecticides; more at www.oregon.gov/ODA/programs/Pesticides/Pages/default.aspx), management of vegetation along the TID is the responsibility of multiple stakeholders.

More than a century ago, fruit tree farmers began constructing an irrigation system comprised of dams, underground pipes, and open canals through the Bear Creek Valley. Today, the East Canal starts out on the west side of Emigrant Lake, and flows through private property in rural Ashland and Talent, in a convoluted route on both sides of the freeway, via open canals and underground pipes. Weed control along the canals is the domain of individual property owners, as is responsibility for testing water quality (as Talent receives its drinking water from Medford).

By contrast, the Ashland Canal is derived from two sources — Howard Prairie Lake and Hyatt Lake. Once the reservoirs’ waters are combined at Green Springs, they run via underground pipes that by-pass Emigrant Lake, and emerge as an open ditch on the hillside outside Ashland city limits. This ditch continues north-westward through private property above the university over to Ashland’s water treatment plant. There TID water can be added to pure run-off from Mt. Ashland, then processed into municipal drinking water.

Here’s where things get complicated: Jackson County Parks cares for the Howard Prairie campground, while the US Bureau of Land Management maintains Hyatt Lake. Responsibility for the pipe/ditch falls to the Talent Irrigation District, along with individual property owners. All three government agencies claim that they do not use chemical herbicides to manage vegetation around the reservoirs or along the ditch. (However, Jackson County Parks does admit to using glyphosate around Emigrant Lake one time, each May, potentially impacting the East Canal, but not the Ashland Canal).

Still, Ashland TID waters are vulnerable to contamination from petrochemicals released by boats recreating in the reservoirs, as well as pesticides and fertilizers applied on private lands. As in Talent, individual land owners in Ashland can choose to assess chemical content of any irrigation water they draw from the TID. However, once TID waters arrive at the Ashland water plant, the department does each April test the TID waters for contamination from herbicides, petroleum products, as well as naturally-occurring bacteria. Should contaminants exceed permitted limits, the department can prevent TID waters from entering the system. Additionally, the Ashland Water Department captures miniscule chemical molecules with charcoal, creating particles large enough to be filtered out.

In theory, we have great drinking water.

Donning my N95 mask, I decided to inspect short sections of the TID on foot. Though the Ashland TID trail is now gated-off at various property lines, from what I could see, vegetation had been mowed, not treated with chemicals. A neighbor assured me that property owners have more recently become conscious not to use herbicides along the trail. Furthermore, a TID spokesman said their agency uses a weed-eater to keep the access road excess-vegetation free for their maintenance trucks.

I must add, however, that I noted significant evidence of chemical burn along the Talent canals. May dog-walkers, berry-munchers, and water-users be appropriately alerted.

The purpose of Act Locally being to offer practical actions to readers, here are some useful links:

1. If the TID passes through your property, please minimally comply with ODA regulations (www.oregon.gov/ODA/programs/Pesticides/RegulatoryIssues/Pages/RegulatoryIssuesCompliance.aspx). Better yet, consider implementing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) (http://ucanr.edu/sites/OrchardIPM/Video_Library_875/Educators/Pete_Goodell/).

2. If you draw irrigation water from the TID, and are concerned about potential chemical contamination, you can call Neilsen Research Corporation in Medford (the lab Ashland Water District uses) at 541-770-5678. If you explain your concerns to any of their technicians, they can help you decide what tests to purchase (fees range from under $50 to well over $1,000).

3. If you suspect neighbors of violating pesticide regulations, you can submit an ODA complaint form (www.oregon.gov/ODA/programs/Pesticides/Pages/PesticideComplaints.aspx) or personally contact: Jeff Isler, ODA Pesticide Investigator; Pesticides Program Field Office, District No. 4; 569 Hanley Road, Central Point OR 97502; 541-840-8229.

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s. Act Locally appears the first and third Mondays of the month in the Tidings.

Photo by Nina NigertA footbridge passes over the Ashland Canal portion of the Talent Irrigation District system.
Photo by Nina EgertA warning sign by a locked gate cautions potential trespasses from entering private property along the Ashland Canal portion of the Talent Irrigation District system.