Jim Grieve looks over the empty holding ponds at the Butte Falls Hatchery, which is being permanently closed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as the agency deals with budget cuts. - Jamie Lusch

95 years down the drain

BUTTE FALLS — The aged concrete ponds that helped the Butte Falls Hatchery grow tens of millions of salmon and trout are empty now, with water from Big Butte Creek no longer gurgling through them.

"It's very strange not hearing water running around this place," hatchery foreman Jim Grieve says.

The water is gone and it's not coming back, as the hatchery has fallen victim to state budget cuts.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed the 95-year-old hatchery, which had managed to hold on in recent years despite old age, a fluke disease, a four-year quarantine and previous swings of the budget ax.

Faced with the cut of an additional 13 percent in its general fund operations, the agency has shuttered the state's third oldest hatchery just seven years after making about $1 million in improvements.

A portion of the 13-acre property and its water right will revert to the federal government as required under a Depression-era deed, and the state will either sell or transfer what's left of the land and its equipment.

"The sooner the better right now," says Curt Melcher, the ODFW's deputy director says. "We've closed the facility and instituted a layoff of the one staff member there. We're not looking at leaving it in limbo any longer than we have to."

ODFW also plans to cut the Western Oregon Streams Protection Program, which worked on fish-enhancement projects. That program has seven full-time staffers and a two-year budget of about $767,000, but was not included in the budget proposal from ODFW for the next biennium. Barring a change of plans, the program will end in July.

The agency also will leave unfilled a watershed council coordinating position previously based in its Roseburg office, Melcher says.

About half of the $15 million in general fund money allotted to ODFW goes to running and maintaining nine fish hatcheries statewide each biennium. While Butte Falls was rated as the best of the lot, it has been under quarantine for the past four years after a disease outbreak in its water supply, leaving it ripe for cutting.

"That finished us off," Grieve says.

Melcher agreed the shutdown came at a bad time for the hatchery as the state looked for cuts.

"When it's not producing fish, it's really like low-hanging fruit," he said.

That means Grieve is preparing to walk away from the facility that has been a part of his family for five generations — from his grandfather helping stock local waters with Butte Falls fish to his grandchildren who play at his caretaker's residence.

Last week he drained the concrete rearing ponds and an old earthen pond stocked with trout for kids to catch.

Now he's painstakingly inventorying what's left — from fish troughs and egg trays down to the number of shovels lying about — for shipping to other hatcheries, storage or even sale.

"It's a neat, old place, but it's old," Grieve says. "It has its flaws, for sure. But it has its assets."

Melcher said the agency would have had to spend more money on the hatchery this year, including constructing a settling pond, to get it into production.

"But that would be going in the opposite direction of where we need to go with our general fund," Melcher said.

The property includes three residences and the hatch house as well as the right for pass-through use of 15.5 cubic feet per second of water from Big Butte Creek, Grieve says.

The water right is not for consumptive use, so it cannot be transferred for uses such as bottling and selling the water, Melcher says.

Potential buyers might be slim.

Anyone seeking to operate it as a private hatchery would have to secure water rights and build the settling pond.

Possibilities include transferring the property to become a state or Jackson County park, or even selling it for its old-growth Douglas fir that tower over the ponds.

"We haven't ruled anything out or taken any option off the table," Melcher says. "We're not looking at this as an opportunity to make money. Our motivation is to save money."

Grieve says he will continue to live at the hatchery residence until January. His pink slip will turn into a transfer slip to Cole Rivers Hatchery to work there, he says.

But his heart, and family roots, remain at Butte Falls.

"It's still a beautiful place," Grieve says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at

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