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Ashland Creek bacteria study a community winner

By Forrest English
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Throughout the Rogue River basin’s approximately 5,000 square miles, we have almost 600 stream miles that have documented E. coli pollution problems.  E. coli (short for Escherichia coli) is a bacteria that is found in the lower intestines of warm blooded animals, and some strains can cause gastrointestinal infections and other health problems in humans.  E. coli is an indicator of recent fecal contamination.  In other words, there’s poop in the water.

One of the streams in the Rogue basin regularly posted with heath notices for exceeding Oregon water quality standards for bacteria is Ashland Creek, a Bear Creek tributary that flows through popular recreation spots such as Lithia Park.  Due to health concerns, the City began sampling for E. coli in 2003, and Ashland Creek has exceeded those levels five years out of seven. 

Due to funding shortfalls, most agency water monitoring has simply focused on the presence, rather than the source, of pollution.  As Rogue Riverkeeper has a keen interest in water quality in the region, we wanted to take a closer look at where this chronic pollution was coming from. We quickly found out that we weren’t the only ones.  In 2010, we designed and implemented a study on Ashland Creek in collaboration with Southern Oregon University, the City of Ashland, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and many concerned citizens to look for the source of chronic bacteria pollution in this popular spot for both locals and tourists alike.

With all the enthusiastic help that we received from the community and generous equipment loans from DEQ, we were able to design a study to look at and isolate contributions from likely bacteria sources.  We focused on swimming areas in and above the upper park, the storm drain system where it discharges to the creek, and an irrigation outfall to the creek.  Many volunteers gave up part of their Saturday and Wednesday evenings from June through October to sample a total of 15 sites along the creek and the irrigation ditch four times a week.  The samples were taken to SOU, where students and faculty performed the E. coli  lab tests on our water samples.

The project culminated in the Ashland Creek E. coli Bacteria Study report, and the results are fascinating.  The overwhelming majority of bacteria is entering Ashland Creek from the Talent Irrigation District water outfall, which dumps into the creek in the middle of Lithia Park.  The ditch water was relatively clean when it entered city limits and got increasingly polluted as it flowed through town alongside a popular walking trail.  While we didn’t determine what creatures’ fecal matter is causing this problem, our study contributes helpful insight into the chronic pollution that afflicts beloved Ashland Creek.

The recommendations in our 50-page report aim at minimizing bacteria from TID entering Ashland Creek:  1) Public education that the irrigation ditch flows into the creek;  2) Install dog waste stations along the ditch trail;  3) Pipe the irrigation ditch within city limits; and  4) Conduct further study of the ditch and other areas with smaller bacteria contributions. The City is already taking some of these recommendations to heart, so keep a look out for new signs and dog waste stations along the TID trail this year. 

Rogue Riverkeeper thanks the many volunteers who contributed so much to this study, which we could not have done without them. Ashland is a special town, and this project contributed significant information to a problem and serves as a wonderful demonstration that community members can come together to tackle problems that plague our town.

This project taught Rogue Riverkeeper a lot, and we are now setting our sights on other neighboring creeks that have even worse E. coli levels than Ashland Creek. Based on DEQ documents we have identified our top five priorities for bacteria sourcing study in 2011: Little Butte, Evans, Jackson, Griffin and Larson Creeks. Please contact us if you are interested in assisting with future bacteria sourcing projects in the Rogue Basin or would like to volunteer with us in Ashland this year to mark storm drains with “no dumping, flows to creek” signs. 

The Ashland Creek E. coli Bacteria Study report is available from our website at www.rogueriverkeeper.org

Forrest English is the Water Quality Coordinator for Rogue Riverkeeper, whose mission is to protect and restore water quality and fish populations in the Rogue Basin and adjacent coastal watersheds through enforcement, field work and community action.
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