We all pollute Bear Creek

We're happy to see a state mandate that local governments in the Bear Creek watershed actively move to clean up the creek. But this is certainly a case of easier said than done and it will take a good deal more than just government participation to make real progress.

Bear Creek could be an aesthetic advantage for the numerous communities along its banks. Medford, in fact, has a vision plan calling for new buildings to be oriented toward the creek to provide relief from downtown concrete and traffic. And the creek does serve as a sheltered backdrop to the Greenway, providing bicyclists, joggers and walkers a path less traveled.

But for all its potential, Bear Creek faces some very big challenges. This is not a case of massive industrial pollution — if it were, the task would be much simpler. Bear Creek's pollution comes from thousands — tens of thousands — of sources, most of them hard to identify and hard to control.

If you wash your car and the soapy water runs into the storm drain, you're contributing to the problem. All drivers leave behind bits of oil and rubber that find find their way into the creek. Failing septic tanks can go unnoticed for years. Construction lays the ground bare, ripe for runoff in a storm. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and animal waste contribute.

This is not just an issue for Bear Creek. Virtually every little creek in the valley is polluted to some extent, often with fecal coliform from septic systems and animal waste. In all, 311 miles of creeks have been identified as failing to meet standards. Much of that mileage is in tributary streams, but all of it eventually flows into Bear Creek.

The thousands of contributions to the problem are referred to as nonpoint source pollutants — in other words, regulators can't pinpoint a single source or even several sources as the culprits. We are all the culprits.

As a result, Bear Creek does not meet federal water quality standards for sedimentation, bacteria and temperature. That led to an order from the state Department of Environmental Quality requiring six cities, Jackson County and other agencies to take action to improve the creek. Those involved were given 18 months to come up with plans for that improvement. Failing to do so could result in fines of up to $8,000 a day and loss of federal grants.

There's hope: Bear Creek's quality has actually improved in the past 10 years from a federal rating of "very poor" to merely "poor." Not a resounding victory, but a step in the right direction. Now the regulatory agencies want it to reach a "good" standard.

There are effective actions to move in that direction, such as developing more catch basins to allow storm runoff to settle rather than flow unimpeded into the creek. The city of Ashland likely will have to take further action in improving its treated sewage, which currently is clean but too warm. Major construction projects will likely see requirements ramped up for limiting runoff.

But the real challenge will be to educate all of us about how we can help make a difference. Our local governments have been ordered to fix the creek, but it will take thousands of little efforts if that task has any hope of succeeding.

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