Unsafe water in our creeks makes summer less fun

Summer hit the Rogue Valley in a week that teased 100 on the thermometer. One of the cooling comforts that residents and tourists alike have enjoyed for generations during these sizzling months is a dip in one of the creeks that grace our region. Unfortunately, chronic fecal bacteria pollution in the Rogue Basin makes many of our public waters unsafe for swimming or wading.

For example, the city of Eagle Point has signs posted year-round in Mattie Brown Park to warn people that Little Butte Creek is not safe. Warning signs on Ashland Creek regularly mar the town's crown jewel of Lithia Park when visitors bring their children to the water's edge on a scorching August afternoon. And Rogue River has similar signs warning potential swimmers of pollution in its Evans Creek tributary. Alas, the Rogue Basin has hundreds of stream miles that are listed under the Clean Water Act for dangerous bacteria pollution levels.

While municipal, state and county health divisions are doing important work to warn people of bacteria pollution, finding the source of that pollution and taking action to prevent it is the long-term solution to making our creeks safe for human use. To help address the problem, Rogue Riverkeeper began a program three years ago to closely study bacteria pollution in different areas of the Rogue Basin and provide recommendations to reduce and eliminate bacteria pollution in our public waters.

Rogue Riverkeeper recently released a report on our 2011 bacteria study in Little Butte Creek. Working with the Medford Water Commission, Jackson County Watermaster's office and Southern Oregon University, we collected stream samples once a week from June through October. All of the streams within the Little Butte Creek watershed that are defined by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as having unsafe levels of fecal bacteria were sampled throughout the summer season, and when possible, compared against data going back to 1998.

The results are cause for concern. Based on study findings, fecal bacteria reductions of 59 percent are needed watershed-wide to reach safe levels for human health, while some of the creek's tributaries require 91 percent reductions. Perhaps even more troubling is that the bacteria problem is getting worse. The results show a steadily increasing trend for bacteria pollution in Little Butte Creek over the past 13 years.

Something needs to be done to improve the situation, not just for Little Butte Creek, but also for everyone downstream.

Based on Rogue Riverkeeper's Little Butte Creek bacteria report, we offer the following recommendations to address a serious pollution problem in this important salmon tributary of the Rogue.

  • Modernize irrigation methods. Flood irrigation has been washing topsoil downstream and adding fecal pollution to streams and rivers for a long time. We can retain our important farmland soils and keep pollution out of our streams by using sprinkler systems.
  • Reduce overall withdrawal quantities. The more water that is pulled out of the creek, the less water there is to dilute the bacteria, thereby concentrating and worsening the pollution. Water consumers can take steps to more conservatively use the resource and only take out what is truly needed.
  • Protect and restore stream buffers. A healthy riparian buffer serves as an effective natural pollution filter, keeps down invasive species and maintains cool water for endangered salmon.
  • Implement Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy, or WISE. Implementing the WISE project would accomplish needed improvements by upgrading 100-year-old irrigation ditches, modernizing irrigation systems, conserving a precious resource and keeping more water in our streams. WISE would give farmers more reliable water while helping restore stream flows and improving water quality in our creeks.

We all love our rivers and streams, especially on a hot summer day when we can cool off by swimming or just dipping our toes in some refreshing water. Restoring our public waters so that they are swimmable, fishable and drinkable are not just the goals of the Clean Water Act, but also the desires of most Americans. We have a long row to hoe to achieve these goals, but together our community can make a commitment to act on behalf of safe water so that future generations can enjoy public waters that are not health hazards.

You can download the full Little Butte Creek report at www.rogueriverkeeper.org/bacteria.

Lesley Adams is the program director for Rogue Riverkeeper.

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