Improving Bear Creek takes the whole community

With the paint spill via a storm drain and efforts to determine bacterial contamination in Ashland Creek, and discussions by Medford officials and residents about proposed stream protection in the watershed, Bear Creek has been in the news in recent months.

Although Bear Creek flows through the middle of our valley, sometimes we need reminders about our connection to this watershed. Water flows into Bear Creek from all the hills, forests, farms, and cities in the watershed, including Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, Central Point, and Jacksonville.

Bear Creek and its tributaries provide vital natural spaces for people and wildlife as the streams meander through our cities and countryside, and these waterways also dramatically affect us during flood events. We in turn affect the watershed. We pollute it, often unintentionally, by dirtying the stormwater that flows into the streams. We impair natural stream functions by altering stream channels and changing the character of riparian vegetation.

Nonetheless, most of the streams in this valley still support struggling but viable populations of coho and chinook salmon, steelhead trout and other native fish. The Bear Creek watershed with its large human population then goes on to impact the larger Rogue River Basin it drains into. But, while negative human impacts on the watershed are many, work to reduce and repair our impacts continues.

Although water quality in Bear Creek is degraded, it has improved over the years. Recently the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality upgraded the rating of Bear Creek's water quality from "very poor" to "poor". While Bear Creek still has a long way to go to gain a "good" rating, there has been significant progress which should be recognized.

Water quality improvement has resulted from the work of cities, agencies, groups and individuals working together to reduce our impacts on local streams. The cities in the Bear Creek watershed and Jackson County are working to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act through the Total Maximum Daily Load program and municipal stormwater programs.

These municipalities protect and enhance our streams by sharing resources to educate people about stormwater ("Dump No Waste — Drains to Stream"), installing facilities that retain and detain stormwater, cleaning streets, marking storm drain inlets and maintaining and improving streamside vegetation. Although local governments are involved in aspects of watershed protection and enhancement through their own municipal programs, they also work with supporting groups and partners that provide resources and volunteers to help inform local citizens, restore portions of the watershed and advocate for watershed protection and enhancement.

Federal and state laws mandate improvements to water quality and stream habitat, but funding to assist efforts is limited. Protection and enhancement of our streams must become a priority to residents and local government officials.

Progress will rely on the degree of engagement of citizens with local decision-makers, communicating the importance of healthy streams, encouraging our leaders to adopt policies to protect streams and urging the allocation of resources for stream improvement. Local leaders wrestle with the problems of inadequate funding for myriad competing needs, but the long-term benefits of stream protection and improvement outweigh the short-term costs.

Clean, clear, healthy streams not only improve our quality of life and the quality of habitat for wildlife, they also strengthen the local economy through increased tourism, abundant fisheries, safe boating and other opportunities. Studies show that land values increase near functioning, attractive waterways.

While the wheels of change often move slowly and frustration results from the perception of the lack of progress, it is the energy of the public that is the fulcrum upon which change will hinge. Many groups, including our own, undertake projects that will make a meaningful difference in the future.

But our work relies on the interest and commitment of volunteers — their involvement is the key to progress. Tasks vary from helping residents understand their relationship to the watershed and the valuable network of life it supports to planting trees that provide beneficial shade along local streams to removing fish-passage barriers.

The ways in which we degrade Bear Creek are many, and so also must be the ways we seek to rectify these impacts. All that is required is the willingness to step up and devote one's time and energy.

We invite you to visit for information and opportunities to become involved in efforts to protect, enhance and restore local streams.

Frances Oyung is coordinator of the Bear Creek Watershed Council.

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