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Cleaning up Bear Creek

Craig Harper would like to see a Bear Creek that's clean enough so kids could wade in it. Cindy Deacon Williams wants a Bear Creek with more trees on its bank to cool water for fish.

Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality is developing targets for bacteria and water temperature in the creek. With targets issued in six to nine months, creek users will have to show how they'll meet the goals.

Although new restrictions may help Harper and Williams come closer to their wishes, the requirements will likely have a high cost, especially for Ashland's wastewater treatment plant, which will have to somehow chill the temperature of its summer effluent.

We've got this beautiful stream running through our community, and you are not supposed to touch it due to all this pollution, said Harper, Bear Creek Watershed Council coordinator with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments. If there were better controls on bacteria sources, then people could use and appreciate the streams more.

— Bear Creek at Kirtland road showed the most improvement in water quality, according to a state index that ranked changes from 1992 to 2001 for 151 monitoring sites. But the site still falls into the very poor category.

The new rules will take their place alongside a jumble of collaborative community efforts, current regulations, monitoring programs and creekside enhancements, all aimed to understand or increase creek health.

Current DEQ rules regulate ammonia, phosphorus and biochemical oxygen demand in Bear Creek. The rules are required by national clean water legislation enforced by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A different set of rules governs waste from agricultural users. A 1996 Oregon Senate Bill separated out standards on animal waste management to prevent bacteria in the stream.

One of the huge problems is horse owners storing waste in a flood plain where its likely to enter the waters, said Tim Stevenson of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Some enforcement actions have been brought against property owners adjacent to the creek, said Stevenson.

Communities along Bear Creek submitted applications for storm water discharge permits to DEQ in March to comply with more new EPA requirements. Draft storm drain management plans were included and must be finalized by March. The requirements don't include target figures for pollution and temperature. But they do require actions, including public education, to clean up runoff that gets into the creek from storm drain systems.

On Thursday, Southern Oregon University's Les AuCoin Institue took a first step toward a watershed approach to improve the creek. Representatives of the Bear Creek Watershed Council, Headwaters, Friends of the Green Springs, Rogue Basin Coordinating Council, Real Corps, Bear Creek Watershed Education Project, and Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy gathered for a first meeting.

We're trying to take a real broad look. I think a lot of people who work in various parts of the watershed realize there's a lot of value in taking a watershed perspective, said Jack Williams, a fellow at the institute and former Siskiyou and Rogue National Forest supervisor.

About 1,000 young trees and shrubs were planted at the J. Herbert Stone nursery on Jackson Creek, a Bear Creek tributary, last fall in a pioneer program to provide shade for the stream andreduce non-native blackberries that invade stream banks in Southern Oregon. An Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant funds the project.

Bear Creek has the same sort of problem, said Max Bennett, who heads the project through the Oregon State University Extension Service. As trees die, there aren't a lot of places for trees to replace them because nothing can come up over the blackberries.

Up to 7,500 trees will be planted along Bear Creek next year. Rogue Valley Council of Governments has received &

36;91,000 from federal and foundation sources that will allow planting 7.5 miles of the creek with conifers, broadleaf species and willows. Tentative sites include areas in Talent and Medford and the burned areas at the Jackson County fairgrounds and between Medford and Central Point.

Ashland Public Works Director Paula Brown hopes that planting trees will be trade-off for for the relatively warm effluent the treatment plant discharges into the creek. In the summer the effluent is about 68 degrees. Bear Creek's summertime target temperature at its mouth is 64 degrees.

Brown says up to 80 percent of Bear Creek's summer flow comes from the treatment plant. The water is extremely clean as the result of a &

36;33.6 million upgrade. Putting in chilling mechanisms would be costly and environmentally harmful, says Brown.

An alternative to chilling now in preliminary discussion stages, might send the treated water to Talent Irrigation District. But when the City Council opted for the upgrade in 2000 over another system, they were adamant to keep water in the creek for fish.

With clearer, warmer water, if there's no negative impact ... I say that should be enough, said Brown.

Brown has support for more trees from at least one environmentalist.

The biggest source of temperature is the lack of shade, said Williams, conservation director for Headwaters. Compared to that, the Ashland plant is small.

New rules needed to protect fish A federal judge's rejection of Oregon water quality standards as inadequate to protect threatened and endangered species won't slow down efforts to submit new Bear Creek water standards for bacteria and temperature.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed with Oregon's preliminary standards adopted in 1996. But U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Hagerty's March 31 ruling calls for the EPA to issue new and perhaps tougher federal rules in place of the state requirements. Hagerty said current rules designed to protect fish are virtually useless.

Endangered coho salmon spawn in Bear Creek.

Parties in the court case have 30 days to create a schedule for making new rules, said Debra Sturdevant, water quality standards coordinator with DEQ in Portland. The process could take about a year, she guessed. Hagerty's ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2001 by Northwest Environmental Advocates of Portland against the EPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which supported the EPA's acceptance of Oregon's rules.

An approved plan wouldn't necessarily be resubmitted right away once new rules are adopted, said Sturdevant. The new Bear Creek rules will be issued in six to nine months. The EPA has 30 days to approve or reject the standards following a 60-day public comment period.Bear Creek data can be hard to find

There's a lot of data on Bear Creek, according to some scientists. But it's not always easy to get.

A lot of reports are just kind of done and go in files, said Jack Williams of the Les AuCoin Institute. Collection of all that data in one place is one goal of a new institute effort.

Another scientist says still more data is needed.

There's not really a good, robust data set that lets us really identify where the problem points are that we could do something about, said Cindy Deacon Williams, a fish biologist and conservation director for Headwaters. We're still in the stage of knowing there are problems, but we really don't have the details to show where our number one, two or three priorities lie.

The Rogue Basin Technical Team, funded by a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, is creating a model that will process existing information and generate a report card on the health of the basin, including Bear Creek.

Debra Whitall, a hydrologist, heads the team that works under an agreement between 27 entities to improve water quality in the basin from Crater Lake to Gold Beach.

What often happens with data, it's there and it's just not always readily accessible, said Whitall. The effort also will reveal gaps in the information, she said.

Oregon State University Agricultural Extension forestry agent Max Bennett walks among the willow and ninebark planted in place of invasive blackberry brambles that had taken over a creek bank at Herbert Stone nursery. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell