What’s the point? Non-point!
Walk, bike, or drive through Ashland’s outskirts, and you might notice cattail ditches skirting the road’s edges, plus the occasional sign reading; “NO SPRAY.” These cattail-lined roads are the jurisdiction of Jackson County (as opposed to the city or the state). The signs are there to remind county workers that the owner of the adjacent land has added their name to a list requesting that no aerosol herbicides be applied within 300 feet of their property lines (the distance of safety as determined by the Oregon Department of Agriculture).
The cattail ditches are not just there for looks: They are the method by which Jackson County has chosen to manage run-off from rain shower run-off that contains petrochemicals left on the road by passing vehicles, as well as herbicides from adjacent vegetation. (Readers might remember that Vector Control also inserts pellets of solid insecticide into these ditches in order to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.) The positive aspect to the ditch method is that toxic run-off remains contained in one place, and does not impact other bodies of water. Mallards, red-wing blackbirds, plovers, and other birds seem to enjoy using the puddles, even if the water is a toxic soup.
In contrast to the county’s use of ditches and herbicides, within Ashland’s city limits, roadsides are handled quite differently. Except for in a couple of noted locations, the city does not make use of herbicides: The choice to employ garden chemicals is left up to individual home owners, who are legally responsible for clearing the edges of their property.
Instead of ditches, Ashland has an underground storm drain system. With each rainfall, herbicides and fertilizer, along with other types of street residues, are washed out of sight beneath paved sidewalks. These chemicals are referred to as “non-point sources,” meaning no one knows from where the chemicals originated before they were washed downstream.
The city of Ashland has an entire web page discussing the problem: Non-point storm water “may be carrying pollutants including mud, fertilizer, pet waste, trash and a variety of substances generated by vehicles including asbestos, rubber, oil, brake and power steering fluid and anti-freeze” (www.ashland.or.us/SectionIndex.asp?SectionID=507).
What has city workers troubled (and now hopefully readers as well) is that Ashland’s storm drains do not empty out at our waste treatment plant, but release run-off directly into our lovely creeks and streams. Unfiltered non-point source chemicals gush straight into the water where aquatic wildlife reside.
The potential harm of this run-off on wildlife depends largely upon timing. If we have a summer with intermittent rainstorms, less chemical residue accumulates on surfaces before they are washed down into the creeks. On the other hand, if we have a summer such as this one, in which no rain has fallen for weeks, the run-off from the first storm of the season will be thick with all the toxic chemicals that have been building up on streets, lawns, roofs, trees, etc. since the last rain of the spring.
Seasonal temperature also figure into the problem. Run-off picks up heat from pavement, eventually raising water temperatures to dangerous levels for fish and amphibians. And then there is ash from wildfires. This year the first storm run-off will contain more than a month’s worth of the ash that has settled on every surface. This will undoubtedly change the pH balance in our creeks.
Storm drains have been emptying into our creeks for decades. It’s old news. Though government agencies are aware of this year’s pending problem, neither the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, nor any other agency to which I spoke, has geared up to study what impact the first big rainstorm will have on Ashland’s aquatic wildlife. (Fish and Wildlife will conduct a study of fish in lower Bear Creek in a few weeks.)
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) could be requested to come in and text the toxicity of the water, but that will tell us nothing about the run-off’s direct effect upon animal and plant life. (Government agencies largely rely upon college classes to perform test studies. Perhaps readers know of a such a study in progress.)
Act Locally is meant to offer readers concrete solutions to problems, but as of now there is nothing any of us can do to mitigate the harm from this year’s first rainfall. Biologist Daniel Van Dyke of Fish and Wildlife suggests: “If you happen to see a hazardous spill or a large number of dead fish in a stream, there is a hotline … the Oregon Emergency Response System (OERS) at 800-452-0311.”
As for actions reader can take:
1. Determine whether you live within city limits or not. Property owners can check property tax statements, and anyone can call the City Records office (541-488-5307). (Or just check if your road is edged with cattail ditches or gutters.)
2. If you live within city limits, consider holding off on the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. See city recommendations (www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=12417). The DEQ suggests having porous driveways and collecting rainwater from roofs in barrels (www.oregon.gov/deq/wq/Pages/WQdata.aspx). (To which I would add, if you are going to use rain barrel water on your plants, maybe hold off connecting up your system to your drainpipe until after the ash on your roof has been washed away by rain.)
3. If you live on a road maintained by Jackson County (or along the sections of Highway 99 outside city limits that are maintained by ODOT), you can go to their websites to join NO SPRAY lists (note: the county requires property owners on the list to keep roads free of vegetation). Go to http://jacksoncountyor.org/roads/Roads/PROGRAMS-SERVICES/Vegetation-Management or call 541-774-8184. The ODOT site is www.oregon.gov/ODOT/Maintenance/Documents/statewide_IVM_plan.pdf.
Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s. Act Locally appears the first and third Mondays of the month in the Tidings.