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Mill taps into water rights

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jay O’Neal walks through the Butte Creek Mill in February.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point.
A proposed deal with Trout Unlimited would allow Butte Creek Mill to obtain water from Little Butte Creek

A major stumbling block to obtaining water rights for the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point has been overcome.

A deal reached with Trout Unlimited, a national angler organization, should safeguard the historic building’s legacy as the the only commercial, water-powered grist mill east of the Mississippi.

The original 1872 Little Butte Creek water rights are owned by the former owner of the mill, Bob Russell, and a two-year option has been reached with Trout Unlimited for $591,990.

“It is a dream come true for everybody, in my humble opinion,” Russell said.

He said Trout Unlimited has been great to work with, helping create a deal that works for all parties.

The mill burned down in 2015, and $2.1 million has been raised toward rebuilding, with another $1.1 million left to raise.

Trout Unlimited has agreed to allow the mill to use 16 cubic feet per second of water to turn the turbines that power the mill for $91,000 and an annual fee of $1.

“It was a bit of a tough, drawn-out negotiation,” said Jay O’Neil, chair of the Butte Creek Mill Foundation.

Trout Unlimited has a two-year option to buy the rights from Russell, contingent on obtaining grants. The water rights provide Trout Unlimited with 23 cubic feet per second from the creek.

Within that two years, the mill would need to come up with the money for the rights.

The water rights are the oldest and one of the largest on the creek, and Trout Unlimited, in part, wants to control them to help ensure water flows down the creek even in times of drought.

There are about 600 water rights along Butte Creek, and since Russell’s water rights are some of the oldest on the creek, they would also be one of the last to be shut off in times of drought.

Unlike most users of the creek water, the mill diverts flow — to the turbine that powers the grinding wheel — and then the water returns to the creek.

The water flow is temporarily affected along a one-third mile stretch of the creek.

In case of severe drought, when the flow of the creek drops below 25 cubic feet per second, the mill has agreed not to tap into the water supply.

However, over the life of the mill, it hasn’t encountered any episodes of drought that have reduced the stream flow to those low levels.

O’Neil said that earlier in negotiations with Trout Unlimited it appeared the organization couldn’t obtain a grant that would allow releasing a portion of the flow to the mill.

Over the past couple of months, Trout Unlimited has found other grants that would allow it to transfer some of the flow to the mill.

The mill doesn’t turn by a conventional water wheel. Instead water flows through a millrace and into a 12-foot-deep penstock where the weight of the water activates a turbine that runs the wheels, belts and pulleys.

The original grinding stones were transported by boat around South America to Crescent City. The “buhr” stones, originally from France but assembled in Moline, Illinois, were then transported by wagon over the Siskiyou Mountains to Eagle Point.

Last December, the old stones started turning again, producing 3,000 pounds of flour.

O’Neil said construction costs have continued to increase, saying the amount needed to finish the project has jumped from $800,000 to $1.1 million.

Most of the work needed to finish the mill is on the inside, including installation of a fire sprinkler system, which was lacking in the original mill.

Chrysten Lambert, Oregon director for Trout Unlimited, said the purchase of the water rights will help ensure that the creek has adequate flow for salmon, steelhead, trout and Pacific lamprey.

She said her organization is in the process of applying for the funds to purchase the water rights.

“Obviously that hurdle still remains with fundraising for the grants,” she said.

She said that with severe drought conditions it will become increasingly difficult for streams to maintain water flow at times.

“We could end up with Little Butte Creek dewatered during the summer,” she said.

With the purchase of Russell’s water rights, she said the stream should at least have some water flow during the drought.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.