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Bear Creek water quality improves to 'poor' rating

I grew up in the Rogue Valley and can remember all the media attention that Bear Creek got about how polluted it was. Is it still polluted, or did it get cleaned up, or is it always going to be polluted just because of the nature of the location?

— Mark G., Medford

We can definitely tell you, Mark, that you shouldn't take a dip in Bear Creek, if that's what you're thinking.

As you are well aware, Bear Creek has been known as a very polluted waterway in Oregon. In fact, about 10 years ago, on a state rating system, the creek was considered "very poor," the worst rating.

Heather Tugaw, Rogue basin specialist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the creek now is regarded as simply "poor," which is a notch up from the very worst.

"We're on the right trajectory, but we have a long way to go," she said.

The state rating system also includes fair, good and excellent.

She said storm-retention facilities, improvements at the wastewater plant in Ashland and efforts to improve the riparian areas all have helped the creek.

But bacteria levels remain high, the creek is too warm and the amount of oxygen is below desired levels.

Other problems include high levels of phosphorus, chlorophyll, ammonia and fecal coliform.

Agricultural and irrigation runoff have contributed to some of the problems with the creek.

Over the years, the Medford and Talent irrigation districts have reduced sediment and nutrients from irrigated lands.

Tugaw said it is difficult to estimate when the creek will be clean enough to swim in again, though cities do have plans to bring down pollutants entering the creek.

"That's hard to say," she said. "It's not something one person can fix."

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.