Who Speaks For Bear Creek? The Region’s Most Defining Waterway Is Waiting For And Wanting Help
-Phil Busse, with reporting by Ryan Degan
“I think people are aware that Bear Creek has problems, but I think there is a less clear understanding of how to halt the damage and repair the Rogue River’s most urban waterway.” – Forrest English, Rogue Riverkeepers,
Bear Creek is not a swimming hole. In the most simple terms, it is a dirty, polluted river.
During summer months, those brave—or foolish, stupid or ignorant—enough to jump into the waterway that stretches through the Rogue Valley complain about rashes, and although some native wildlife and salmon are returning to the area, it is a mere fraction of what would constitute a normal or healthy population. Water temperatures are too high to foster healthy salmon populations and DEQ tests have shown bacteria levels disturbingly out-of-whack.
That Bear Creek is so polluted is both an environmental tragedy and a community shame: The waterway suffers from a double-whammie of vulnerabilities; it flows through the most populated areas in the region, and also suffers because feeder streams pull fertilizer runoff and cow poop from farmers’ fields. Over the past decade, there certainly have been efforts here and there, now and then, for various cleanup efforts—and the water quality has improved, but only slightly, from “very poor” (the state’s Department of Quality worst rating) to “poor” (the next to worst rating); bacteria levels remain high, the creek is too warm and the amount of oxygen is below desired levels.
A greenway has been established, with walking and biking trails trying to bring bikers and joggers to the area in the hope of revitalizing interest, but homeless camps also have nestled into many of those areas, scaring away many families, and police play a cat-and-mouse game with the encampments.
“I think people are aware that Bear Creek has problems,” says Forrest English, “but I think there is a less clear understanding of how to halt the damage and repair the Rogue River’s most urban waterway.” English is the Program Director for Rogue Riverkeepers. “Within just the last five years,” he continues, “I think we’re looking at small incremental change”; not an assessment necessarily providing a wellspring of hope, and also leaving the lingering questions: Should, can and will we do more to cleanup and protect Bear Creek?
Slung between Mt Ashland and the confluence with the Rogue River, there is perhaps no greater natural feature critical to the history of southern Oregon than Bear Creek, yet its more recent history has been one of abuse and neglect; what was once attractive is now lined with trailer parks and polluted to unsafe levels.
In the centuries before white settlers came to the area, Takelmas, the Latgawas and Shastas tribes thrived here, supported by fertile soil and riverways chuck full of salmon and supporting deer and elk. In the 1850s, with somewhat cruel irony, white settlers were drawn to the area for many of those very attributes—and forced out native populations; the 30 mile-long waterway was first renamed Stewart’s Creek for an officer killed and buried near the waterways’ banks. A few years later, the stream was renamed after a near-fatal fight between a settler and grizzly bear (no, not the origins for The Revenant, but likely an equally bloody affair as Leonardo being mauled on screen).
Not coincidentally, the primary cities and towns of the region—Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford and Central Point—sprung up along Bear Creek’s pathway, with Medford pulling its drinking water from the creek during the city’s first few years; and, in the 1860s, the Oregon & California Railroad setting its first route, running largely along the same pathway as the creek, a transportation corridor that later traced the basic pathway for Interstate 5. Again, ironically, those origins are also the underpinnings for the stream’s current vulnerability: The proximity to urban areas places Bear Creek susceptible to sewage and garbage, not to mention a busy interstate running its length spewing toxins and oils. Moreover, the multitude of cities and towns frustrate efforts for cleanups, as it is has proven as slippery coordinating all the municipalities to act in accordance as solving a Rubik’s Cube.
That is not to say that cleanup and protection efforts have not been nearly as long as the history of Bear Creek: In 1889, Jackson County recognized Bear Creek’s unique importance to the region and raised $500 through a tax on bicycles (yes, bicycles) to build parks and pathways along the waterway. But like many more recent efforts to protect Bear Creek, that efforts came up short and that greenway was not established until 1973 when the Bear Creek Greenway finally began to take shape; yet, in the intervening decades, the waterway fell into mis- and disuse.
For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, sewage systems in Phoenix, Talent, Medford and Jacksonville were leaky; raw sewage bypassed treatment facilities and flowed directly into streams, and the local chapter of the American Medical Association repeatedly warned that the area was primed for a health epidemic. In 1968, the state ordered a system overhaul and repair—to which the Rogue Valley Sewer Services (RVSS) has responded heroically, measures recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 by noting that the RVSS was the best managed stormwater quality program in the country.
Those efforts are enviable, but they also are only one piece in a messy puzzle.
In 1998, the DEQ added 26.3 miles of Bear Creek and some of its tributaries to its list of “impaired waters” in Oregon. One of the most insidious pollutants is phosphorus, which spurs on algae growth and can choke a river; 80 percent of the phosphorus is non-specific point pollutants from the Ashland area, most likely meaning wash-off from lawns.
In the past 15 years, some $40 million spent “water quality improvements” and there have been noted improvements, but the waterway remains “impaired” and none of the city officials interviewed for this article expressed a keen sense of urgency for Bear Creek.
There are a smattering of efforts seem to cleanup Bear Creek, but none of them whole-scale changes—and many of them seem to be more intention than execution. For example, on their website, Salmon Drift Watershed Council points to a 2009 report noting the limiting factors—lack of shade, warm water—for proper salmon spawning, and a year later implemented a small-scale restoration process. The website also notes plans for another restoration for the summer of 2012, but has no further updates.
Likewise, the City of Medford hosts a webpage nobly outlining why and how to protect riverways, but the actual link to Beak Creek provides a 404-broken link message. The Rogue Valley Council of Governments has dedicated staff and resources towards Bear Creek, but their information and sense of urgency also seems lackadaisical. The introductory page for the primary restoration project explains the threats to the waterway, and explains that “work started in the fall of 2014,” troublingly explaining “(t)he first task will focus on removing blackberries by using herbicides.” While important to remove invasive species, the use of herbicides in the vicinity of the river seems worrisome. Moreover, the outline for the restoration project continues, explaining what will happen in 2015, but the posting has no more recent updates.
Another section of the website for the Rogue Council of Governments talks about plans to manage stormwater that “were developed and implemented over a 5-year period from 2005 through 2010.” The site goes on to explains, “(p)lans for implementation over the next 5 years are currently be (sic) developed for review and approval by DEQ,” and “(n)ew plans and program changes are anticipated in 2013-2014.” On another page of the site, it lists the current year as July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015, with nothing more than a smattering of meetings.
The upshot seems to be that in spite of all good intentions, meaningful cleanup, restoration and protection of Bear Creek is herky jerky.
Yet, that said, credit is due where it is deserved and progress does seem to being made, slowly and perhaps surely.
Craig Tuss, a Natural Resource Project Manager with Rogue Valley Council of Governments has helped coordinate restoration efforts in Medford, pulling out invasive species on 50 acres and planting native species, in part to help provide more shade and cool the river, which makes the stream more hospitable for wildlife, and also simply to make the space more attractive to residents. And, what efforts are happening are inspiring other measures to cleanup and protect Bear Creek. He notes “lots of random acts of kindness.” (Unfortunately, there also have been acts of vandalism, like in December 2014, some 50 plants and shrubs that had been planted as part of the Medford Riparian Planting Project in the vicinity of McAndrews Road were pulled and cut out.)
Yet, just as the apathy and misuse for decades suffered from inertia, the cleanup efforts do seem to be slowly gaining momentum. In particular, Tuss points out the Rogue Valley Mall took notice of the recent cleanup efforts in Medford, and started to do its own, as well as installing rain swills which collect rainwater and runoff, essentially serving as filters before water from parking lots washing into the river and mitigate heinous pollutants like gas and oil runoff.
“We’ve started the process,” says Tuss, “and we’ve seen good results so far, but the real test about how well we do is ten years from now is it still a nice area.”
He goes on to explain that the cleanup efforts are important, but ensuring long-term success requires a shift in mindset. “The tough thing is that for so long is people have been using Bear Creek as a place to throw things into. We’re trying to work with the community to change that paradigm; getting them to see Bear Creek has a lot to offer.”
He points out that most businesses and houses in the region face away from the waterway, like family members turning their backs on an aging and sick relative. “That’s another indication its not in people’s minds.” He adds, “It’s a tragedy in the commons,” he says.
“By making the area park-like and attractive, more people will start using the greenway,” he continues. “They will look at it as a place to have a picnic, rather than a place to avoid.”
And, that positive interaction is what leads to a sense of stewardship. “Getting families out and actually investing some of their time in the Bear Creek area is how we get that paradigm shifted,” Tuss says, “from taking Bear Creek for granted to taking an interest in Bear Creek.”
On Saturday, April 23, the Rogue Valley Council of Governments hosts a Bear Creek stewardship day, with a litter and vandalism abatement efforts. 9 am – noon, along Bear Creek Greenway in Medford. Last year, 120 volunteers picked up two tons of trash and debris during two such efforts.