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Effort afoot to fix Butte Creek Mill dam

EAGLE POINT — Fish-passage problems in Little Butte Creek that took more than a century to fix took only one winter of high-water flows to ruin.

Now a move is afoot to fix the fix at the Butte Creek Mill's diversion dam, thereby rewriting the story of how nature damaged people's attempt to make wild salmon migration more natural in Little Butte Creek.

Since it first spanned the creek in the 1880s, the diversion dam that funnels water through the Butte Creek Mill has been a major impediment to native salmon and steelhead migrating through Eagle Point into 22 miles of prime upstream spawning habitat.

Its antiquated fish ladder was identified as one of the 20 worst fish-passage barriers in the entire Rogue River Basin when the Rogue Basin Fish Access Team for 2005 helped shepherd a $250,000 fix to the dam near the Eagle Point city limits.

Completed that September, a new fish ladder allowed salmon and steelhead easy passage across the dam. A key component to the project was a downstream weir built of large, natural-looking boulders whose placement backed up water levels enough that salmon needed to jump just 9 inches to enter the ladder.

But intense stream flows during two heavy storms in the ensuing winter obliterated the weir, sending the big boulders rolling downstream to oblivion.

"That storm just annihilated that entire project," says Janelle McFarland, a watershed council volunteer who spearheaded the project. "That thing just went 'poof.' It was such a bummer. Things were working so perfectly before that."

With the weir destroyed, water levels at the base of the new fish ladder dropped more than 2 feet, rendering upstream migration far more difficult for salmon and steelhead under normal conditions, says Jay Doino, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist working on the project.

McFarland's group, with help from state and federal agencies, has since put together a new plan to rebuild and fortify the missing weir and regain salmon's easy access to the ladder.

The proposed $122,500 fix entails a concrete weir to span the stream where the former boulder weir once did. The concrete weir was chosen because it offers greater strength, Doino says.

"We're going to trade aesthetics for effectiveness and stability," Doino says. "We need a new weir and we want one that's going to stay."

The project inched closer to fruition Friday when the state Restoration and Enhancement Board recommended that $18,000 collected from Oregon sport-fishing licenses and commercial fishing fees go toward the project.

Added to other grants and donations, the cash will leave the project $18,000 shy of its goal if approved as expected later by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"It's a cool project," says Laura Tesler, who oversees the ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Program. "Fish passage is important. We have to make this habitat available to fish."

McFarland says she plans to solicit in-kind donations from companies slated to work on the project and perhaps some cash donations from angling groups to put funding over the hump.

The plans call for completing the project this summer.

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

High water during December 2005 and January 2006 blew out the weir at Little Butte Creek dam that was designed to help salmon and steelhead migration. - Jamie Lusch