Crooked River dam being dismantled

October 25, 2013
Crooked River dam being dismantled

PRINEVILLE — An excavator plucked rocks and logs out of Stearns Dam Thursday morning, and the Crooked River began flowing faster through the created notch. The water level in the pool behind the dam began dropping.

“As the pool drained you started to pretty quickly see the river reforming in its primary channel above the dam," said Chris Gannon, executive director of the Crooked River Watershed Council.

After a decade of negotiations and planning, the Stearns Dam south of Prineville is coming out. The removal, led by the Watershed Council, should be done in a couple of weeks and the river will flow free there for the first time in more than 100 years.

“It will be marvelous," said Mike McCabe, Crook County judge.

McCabe was among a group of local, state and federal officials, as well as members of the public, who visited the dam removal site in a tour put on by the Watershed Council. The tour drew about 20 people.

The dam is about 12 miles downstream from Bowman Dam along state Highway 27. Of those dozen miles, eight are protected under a wild and scenic designation by the Bureau of Land Management, said Michelle McSwain, assistant field manager with the Bureau of Land Management in Prineville.

Not only is the Chimney Rock segment of the Lower Crooked Wild and Scenic River an increasingly popular place for people to visit, it also is prime habitat for trout, salmon and steelhead.

While dams and diversions around Central Oregon have long blocked salmon and steelhead, which migrate to and from the Pacific Ocean, their native runs are being restored.

Removal of the Stearns Dam is the latest project in the effort to bring back Central Oregon salmon and steelhead. Passage around or over the Rice-Baldwin Dam must also be created. The Rice-Baldwin Dam is about a mile downstream of Stearns Dam.

“There are more challenges," McSwain said.

Homesteader Sidney Stearns put the rocks and logs into the river to create the Stearns Dam in 1911. He built it to divert water for his pastures. Over the next two decades, ice blocks and other debris battered the dam, Gannon said, leading to regular repairs. In 1934, the Stearns family reinforced it with concrete.

The water right connected to the dam now belongs to the Quail Valley Ranch, but it's been decades since it diverted water there, McSwain said. Instead, river water is drawn farther downstream. The dam is on land overseen by the BLM.

The total cost of removing the dam could be around $350,000, depending on how much restoration work needs to be done along the river, Gannon said.

“We don't know until the dust settles," he said.

Most of that money comes the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the nonprofit conservation group American Rivers.

Prep work for the Stearns Dam removal started last week. The dam should be completely gone in two to three weeks.

We have “500 cubic yards to get out of here," said Rod Robinson, vice president and co-owner of Robinson & Owen Heavy Construction in Sisters. The company is a contractor on the dam removal project.

The company has done similar in-water projects before, Robinson said, including the removal of a small dam on Whychus Creek in Sisters.

Robinson watched as the river level dropped behind the dam as the excavator pulled more of the dam out.

“The challenge here is to control the flow, so we didn't get too much flow at one time," he said.

The slow dropping of the river level gave fish time to adjust, and volunteers a chance to rescue any fish left stranded. About 25 people waded into the river and dipped nets into puddles that formed as the width of the river shrank.

“We have volunteers out helping to salvage fish and move them back into the main stem river from any isolated area that they might be (in)," said Gary Sanders, project manager with the Crooked River Watershed Council.

While she didn't go into the river, Judy Hammaren, of Prineville, a 74-year-old retiree, said she was fascinated by what she saw during the tour.

“And this is a small project compared to other things," she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

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An aerial view of a body of water.