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Contaminated creek

By Mark Freeman
Mail Tribune

Recent study shows E.coli bacteria in Ashland Creek originates in the city, though precise source still unknown

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Contaminated creek

Forrest English and Lesley Adams, of Rogue Riverkeeper program, say a recent study shows that E. coli bacteria flowing into Ashland Creek probably originates within Ashland city limits. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore

E. coli bacteria that occasionally makes Ashland Creek unhealthy for human contact in Lithia Park likely comes from activities within the city limits, a new study concludes.

Preliminary results of a summer water-quality testing program overseen by an Ashland conservation group show that a Talent Irrigation District canal that flows into the park is the main source of bacteria polluting the creek in summer.

But regular tests of the water within TID's pipeline revealed that the water is relatively clean until it gets to town, suggesting Ashlanders somehow are the source of their creek's problems and that the canal is merely the conveyor of that pollution.

"We don't have a ton of data, but the data we do have shows there is some sort of bacteria load within the city limits," said Lesley Adams, whose Rogue Riverkeeper program through the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center organized the study.

"It seems like concentrated human activity within the city limits is contributing to the E. coli in the creek," Adams said.

But the study revealed no smoking gun because sampling could not pinpoint an individual source or discover how the E. coli is reaching TID's canal, so everything from dog-do to sewage seepage and even raccoon feces could be to blame.

"The ultimate source of E. coli in Ashland Creek remains elusive," Adams said.

The study includes a recommendation for more education to show the public that TID water flows into Lithia Park, says dog-waste dispensers should be installed along the canal-sized trails in town, and says the city should pipe the canal within city limits to isolate the water.

The study results have not been officially released and are still being reviewed for comments by the city of Ashland, Southern Oregon University professors and others, Adams said.

She plans a series of presentations on the findings beginning Monday night to the Bear Creek Watershed Council. Others are planned at SOU, as well as to the Ashland City Council and the Ashland Parks Commission.

A public presentation is planned for 7 p.m., Jan. 26, at the Ashland Public Library, at which time the results will be available in print and electronically, Adams said.

In 2007, the lower 2.8 miles of Ashland Creek was listed by the state Department of Environmental Quality as in violation of state water-quality standards for fecal coliform bacteria under the federal Clean Water Act. E. coli, a form of fecal coliform, is closely associated with human and animal waste.

People who ingest E. coli-infected water can develop abdominal cramping, diarrhea and nausea. It is most dangerous to younger and older people, as well as those with poor immune systems.

The city of Ashland regularly tests summer flows in the creek for E. coli and posts warnings against water contact when the levels spike.

Yet tests have failed to find the source.

Adams, Ashland city leaders, Southern Oregon University students and others took regular water samples in the Lithia Park portion of the creek from June 16 through Oct. 30.

By late summer, tests showed that the TID canal at times was contributing as much as 40 percent of the flow and up to 90 percent of the creek's summer bacteria load, Adams said.

They expanded the testing to seven sites along the open-air canal, with results showing that the TID water was "relatively clean" when it reached city limits. But the bacterial load increased as it flowed through town, Adams said.

During the sampling, 10 tests showed E. coli levels exceeding health standards, said Forrest English, water-quality coordinator for the Rogue Riverkeeper program.

The sampling also discovered occasional summer "spikes" of bacteria in the creek at the far upper end of the park. Adams said she suspected the source was people and pets recreating in a series of upstream swimming holes.

E. coli levels also spiked during storm events, Adams said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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