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1990: Saving Bear Creek

Bear Creek and other Rogue Valley waterways have carried waste away from fields and towns for generations. In 1927, the state of Oregon named Bear Creek “a river of sewage,” one of Oregon’s most polluted rivers.

Since that time, cities have become better stewards of their effluence, watershed partnerships have changed public behavior, and science helps to analyze and interpret findings. Thanks to many partners working together, Bear Creek’s water quality has improved over the last 20 years, and fish are returning to their natural habitats.

The 1990 issue of Our Valley focused on land, air, water and urban sprawl, with a section on each area. Climate change and global warming were scientific purviews and largely unknown to the layperson, so Our Valley’s water section covered supply and demand, city water supplies, and there was a major spread titled “Saving Bear Creek.”

“Ten years ago, Bear Creek was little more than a sewer lined with shopping carts and tires, choking with waste and chemicals,” read the 1990 article, which featured Eric Dittmer, who was Rogue Valley Council of Governments watershed coordinator at the time. That 1990 article updated an even earlier report from 1987 that also featured Dittmer, “Curing a Creek: Bear Creek Battles Back After Decades of Human Abuse.”

Over the years, Dittmer and RVCOG carried much of the responsibility for improving Bear Creek water quality, and today that responsibility is shared by a tight partnership of Rogue Valley agencies with a common mission: clean water.

Oregon’s water quality is officially overseen by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that has been collecting and analyzing Bear Creek water samples taken at Kirkland Road in Medford since at least 1990. Water samples are also collected at this point by watershed partners and reported to DEQ, all available online in public databases such as the Oregon Water Quality Index and the Oregon Water Quality Monitoring Data Portal.

The Bear Creek Watershed catchment area covers nearly 400 square miles of agricultural, residential and urban properties and is recognized as one of the most urbanized watersheds in the state of Oregon. Used for irrigation, storm-water runoff, municipal discharge and other uses, the creek runs about 26 miles through private and public lands and is administered by a partnership of agencies invested in protecting and improving the watershed.

John Speece, water quality project manager with the Rogue River Watershed Council, says that since 1997, stakeholders have spent

$39.5 million on water quality improvement projects within the Bear Creek Watershed. That investment has paid off with a gradual improvement of Bear Creek’s water quality report card, moving from “very poor” to “poor,” one year even reaching “fair.”

“In the 1970s, we were testing for fecal bacteria indicating human or animal contamination of the waters,” recalls Dittmer. “I didn’t have the equipment to test for fertilizer residue or things like that.” Dittmer also monitored water temperature.

Dittmer was able to track down decades-old mis-connects between storm drains and sewer lines, identify aging septic systems along Bear Creek, and advise on wastewater treatment to reduce storm-water runoff. Fecal coliform counts of 5,000 per 100 ml in the 1970s now typically measure between 42 and 345 per 100 ml. The reduction in fecal contamination is a clear measure of the improvement in Bear Creek water quality.

Other DEQ water quality indicators include water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, solids, ammonia, nitrate and phosphorus. Water flow volume can also be an important factor in understanding water quality, but DEQ does not monitor flow at this time, nor does DEQ track specific pesticides or herbicides.

The Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Rogue Valley Watershed Council and the Rogue Valley Council of Governments are just three of the agencies that provide education, technical assistance and support to rural and largely urban regions along Bear Creek.

Irrigation districts have reduced sediment inputs into Bear Creek, while the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District helps farmers and other land managers to improve practices. The watershed council and other partners work to increase shade and restore riparian habitat, changes that reduce water temperature.

Greg Stabach, natural resources manager with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, admits that with more than 110 miles of canals moving water around the valley, it can be hard to identify specific sources of contamination, making education and watershed restoration key to the health of Bear Creek.

It’s easy to get involved, according to Stabach. At Stream-Smart.com, citizens can pledge to protect the valley’s waterways, find information about water quality and get matched to volunteer opportunities.

“It’s a work in progress. We’re not going to see the results in 10 to 15 years, but you have to plow forward and look ahead,” Speece admits. “Bear Creek is the success story of the state of Oregon as far as improving the urban watershed.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Frances Oyung, a volunteer and water-quality monitoring coordinator for Rogue Riverkeeper, takes a water quality sample at Bear Creek Park in Medford in 2016. The creek still has many challenges, but it's not as polluted as it once was. Mail Tribune / file photo