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Citizen Water Patrol

A small army of citizen-scientists will help Rogue Valley residents learn whether the creek or swimming hole they hit this summer is a good place to cool off or might be a staph infection in the making.

The Rogue Riverkeeper organization is amassing a group of volunteers to regularly collect water samples from area creeks, lakes and rivers this spring and summer for tests to determine whether these popular swimming and wading waters have unhealthful levels of bacteria.

The information will be posted online at www.rogueriverkeeper.org and accessible via a free smartphone app called "Waterkeeper Swim Guide" so anyone can get up-to-date information on the quality of the water in which they intend to swim or wade.

With studies showing that most area streams often exceed water-quality standards for bacteria at different times each summer, swimmers deserve to know whether their choices for cooling off are safe ones, organizers say. 

"There's a lot of agreement among people that water-contact safety is a good thing," says Frances Oyung, Rogue Riverkeeper's volunteer and water-quality monitoring coordinator. "This makes for a real handy tool for people to access this information, and it can become a regular part of their lives."

To make that happen, Rogue Riverkeeper and the state Department of Environmental Quality will hold a training session for potential volunteers from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at Bear Creek Park in Medford.

The volunteers will collect water samples at various locations and take them to collection points. Oyung will process the samples in a mini laboratory at the organization's Ashland office.

Some, but not all, of the volunteers will get tools to also test for water temperature and turbidity, Oyung says.

The tests are planned from June through October at Emigrant, Applegate and Lost Creek lakes, the Rogue River at Gold Hill and Grants Pass, Bear Creek in Ashland, Wagner Creek in Talent, Baby Bear Creek in Medford and the Applegate River at Cantrall-Buckley County Park.

Unhealthful levels of bacteria such as E.coli are chronic problems throughout the Rogue River Basin, especially in late summer when low flows offer less dilution, says Bill Meyers, the Rogue Basin coordinator for DEQ.

"When it's 100 degrees out there, we should be able to let our kids play in the creeks," Meyers says. "But it's very common late in the summer that we're not meeting water-quality standards."

Sources can vary widely, but irrigation water flowing over fields with manure piles on them are common sources of bacteria, Meyers says. Other common sources are rain events that flush raccoon excrement out of storm drains, illegal dumping of RV waste, not cleaning up after pets and throwing pet waste in creeks or irrigation canals, he says.

Meyers says DEQ adds these volunteer collections into its databases and that they are valuable assets.

He says it will take a "cultural shift" to reduce bacteria loads in area creeks, but awareness through efforts such as this will help.

"As more people are aware of more sources of bacteria, you self-evaluate what you do and you're more aware of what's around you," Meyers says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Frances Oyung of Rogue Riverkeeper takes a water sample Friday at Bear Creek Park in Medford. Rogue Riverkeeper and the state Department of Environmental Quality will hold a training session for potential volunteers Tuesday at the park. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch.
Frances Oyung, Rogue Riverkeeper water-quality monitoring coordinator, takes a water sample Friday from Bear Creek in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch.