An abandoned shopping cart lies in Bear Creek near Main Street in Medford. - Denise Baratta

DEQ wants a better Bear Creek

A far-reaching and potentially expensive plan that would make the Bear Creek watershed safe for people to swim and catch fish mandates local cities and other agencies repair stream banks, prevent pollution and filter storm water.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality plan released Thursday requires six local cities, Jackson County and other agencies to develop proposals for cleaning up more than 300 miles of waterways in a 390-square-mile area that feeds into Bear Creek.

"Right now it's illegal to catch any of the fish out of Bear Creek or tributaries," said Bill Myers, Rogue Basin coordinator for the DEQ. "There are just not enough fish going up there."

During the past 10 years, the quality of water in Bear Creek has improved from a "very poor" to "poor" rating under federal guidelines, thanks to cleanup efforts by communities. Myers said the goal under the new plan is to get at least a "good" rating.

On the main portion of Bear Creek, canopies of vegetation only shade 15 percent of the waterway. The target is to increase the shade canopy to 54 percent to help cool the water for salmon and steelhead. Similar improvements will have to be made to 11 other tributaries that flow through Medford, Ashland, Jacksonville, Central Point, Phoenix and Talent.

Fecal coliforms, which come from human or animal waste, are a problem in 11 creeks. For instance, Payne Creek, which runs through Phoenix, will have to reduce fecal coliforms by 79 percent.

Jackson County and the cities have 18 months to develop plans to encourage residents to prevent contaminants from flowing into the watershed, which could include waste from septic systems or animals.

Myers said one broken septic system could be enough to contaminate a stream during the summer.

In addition, cities will have to do a better job of collecting runoff, which is often contaminated with oil, animal waste and other pollutants.

Both Medford and Ashland have installed systems of collecting runoff and filtering it through ponds, often called swales. In Ashland, the ponds are located in North Mountain Park and across the street in the Riverwalk subdivision. In Medford, wetlands help filter stormwater in Bear Creek Park.

However, Ashland's sewage treatment plant pumps treated water back into Bear Creek that is too warm. Myers said the city will have to figure out a way to cool the water down.

While there aren't a lot of grants for local governments to tap into for these projects, Myers said a $30,000 grant will help build swales in the new Medford sports park to capture runoff.

Myers said he expects cities and the county will work with the DEQ in developing these plans and set dates to achieve results.

If an agency doesn't comply and contaminants continue to make their way into creeks, Myers said the state could levy a fine of $8,000 a day. In addition, the city or agency might discover it's not eligible for state or federal funding if it doesn't comply.

"There is the potential there that they could be labeled a bad actor and that could affect other state funding," he said.

A deadline for compliance has not been set.

Medford Public Works Director Cory Crebbin said, "We don't have any comment on what the city's obligation might be because we haven't seen the plan."

Greg Stabach, project manager with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, said it's difficult to say how much it will cost local agencies to achieve the targets in the plan.

"These are all things that would cost quite a bit of money," he said, referring to creek restoration, storm water filtration and cooling treated wastewater from Ashland's sewage treatment plant.

He said government agencies have completed a number of creek restoration projects over the past 10 years, while developers have worked to limit runoff from going directly into the creek. In addition, there is more street sweeping and more efforts to educate the public about the dangers of dumping oil down storm drains.

Stabach said much of the effort to clean up the creek will be a continuation of existing work. "Communities have done a great job," he said.

Gary Leaming, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said any new projects such as the north and south Medford interchanges are designed to collect and filter runoff before it runs into streams.

The south interchange project also will include extensive stream restoration along a half-mile stretch, with 2,000 trees and shrubs planted, he said.

Leaming said collecting runoff from the viaduct that runs along Bear Creek in Medford would be an expensive project.

ODOT has removed fish barriers on both Jackson and Griffin creeks and wants to continue to improve water quality in local creeks.

"We're contributing for the better, for the health of Bear Creek," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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