KS Wild Side: Let’s get on the water — safely!

Rogue Riverkeeper’s summer intern Sarah samples the Rogue River at Baker Park in Grants Pass. Frances Oyung photo
July 20, 2022

Check Swim Guide website or app for weekly updates on water quality

By Frances Oyung

Summer is the time to swim, boat, and enjoy the plentiful local waterways of the Rogue Basin. While it is fun to be outdoors, there are also hazards in water recreation that are important to keep in mind — not all surface water is safe for water contact.

Frances Oyung

Every summer, Rogue Riverkeeper works with volunteers and partner organizations to collect water samples from more than 15 recreation sites and other locations where people commonly enjoy streams, rivers, and lakes. The most likely source of pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms or infectious substances in water bodies is from animals, and the most common way those substances get into water is through fecal matter.

We collect water samples at each site and test for the presence of E. coli, a type of bacteria that is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. The presence of E. coli bacteria indicates fecal contamination which can contain many other pathogens that can cause gastrointestinal illnesses and make people sick. When Rogue Riverkeeper’s staff analyze the water samples in our lab, we compare the number of E. coli in our sample with the Oregon recreational water quality standard established by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to protect public health. Rogue Riverkeeper will then post the results on the Swim Guide page on the RRK webpage or on the Swim Guide app so you know which waterways are safe for swimming.

Illinois River, West Fork at Forks State Park near Cave Junction requires a day use fee and has restrooms. Frances Oyung photo

How does a stream or lake get fecal contamination? In our region, many different factors and sources can result in contamination of water bodies. Rogue Riverkeeper’s sampling last year showed four streams (Bear Creek in Ashland, Little Butte Creek in Eagle Point, Wagner Creek in Talent, and Evans Creek in the city of Rogue River) met the state water contact standard less than 65% of the time they were sampled. Wagner Creek never met the standard during our sampling in 2021. You can review Rogue Riverkeeper’s 2021 Water Quality Report Card at our website.

Applegate Lake at Hart-Tish. This US Forest Service site requires a day use fee and has picnic tables, restrooms, and other amenities. Haleigh Martin photo

There can be many reasons for bacterial contamination, but often in these smaller streams the cause is agricultural runoff and stormwater runoff from developed areas as well as the lack of dilution found in a small water body that results in higher bacteria levels. Many of the streams in our area are used to convey irrigation water from one part of the watershed to another and the stream can gather bacteria and pathogens along the way. Stormwater runoff can carry bacteria and many other types of pollutants as it washes off the surfaces of roads and developed areas.

The Six Mile Day Use Area on the Illinois River is 8 miles from Selma. It does not require a day fee, but offers no facilities. Oregon Discovery photo

But wherever you want to recreate, be it Emigrant, Applegate, or Lost Creek lakes; the Rogue, Illinois, or Applegate rivers; or wading smaller streams, most of the local waterways are often safe for swimming and Rogue Riverkeeper has you covered with current information on local water quality. We update the Swim Guide results every week so you can know where it’s safe to swim. So make sure to check the Swim Guide before heading out to your favorite swimming hole and have a safe and swimmable summer!

Download the Swim Guide app to easily check the water quality of your summer swimming site!

And, while we are talking about safety on the water, remember to wear a life jacket or other flotation device. Local waters can be cold, even on a hot day, and currents can be strong, even without whitewater. Many people drown in Oregon rivers, lakes, and streams every year, and wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) is the best way to stay safe on the water.

KS Wild Side appears every month and features a staff member from KS Wild, a regional conservation organization based in Ashland. Frances Oyung is the program director for Rogue Riverkeeper, a program of KS Wild. For more information go to rogueriverkeeper.org.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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