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Stearns Dam removal gets under way

More than 100 years after it was initially constructed, the Stearns Dam is being dismantled


by: BILL MINTIENS - Crews place a gas-powered generator that will be used as part of the dam removal project.

When Sidney Stearns built his dam back in 1911, he probably wasn’t particularly concerned that the 150-foot long rock-and-log-filled structure would impede the natural upstream migration of Chinook salmon and Middle Columbia steelhead.

Stearns needed irrigation water for his ranch located just downstream from the dam.

The hand-built Stearns Dam — constructed long before the Bowman Dam in 1961 — suffered from seasonal flooding and the onslaught of rushing waters carrying large boulders and debris down through the narrow canyon.

By 1934, after a particularly harsh winter season, something had to be done to reinforce the structure. The dam was rebuilt that year with a concrete shell placed over the top to prevent the dam from being washed downstream.

Again, no one was concerned that fish couldn’t swim over or around the newly-reinforced dam, which was approximately six-feet tall and 40-feet wide. The Stearns ranch had a solid and dependable water diversion for their crops and animals.

Once the Bowman Dam was completed in 1961, the threat of rushing water harming the structure was basically eliminated because water flowing down the Crooked River could be regulated.

During the ensuing decades, the need for irrigation diversion using the Stearns Dam was replaced downstream by pumps pulling irrigation water directly from the river.

By the 1970s, removing outdated, dangerous, or ecologically damaging dams from river systems across the United States became increasingly important. Many of these dams blocked anadromous (fish that return from the sea to the rivers where they were born in order to breed) fish runs and prevented important sediments from reaching estuaries.

Locally, Chinook salmon and Middle Columbia steelhead were being blocked from their upstream migration on the Crooked River.

Chris Gannon, Director of the Crooked River Watershed Council (CRWC), summed up the problem.

“These iconic species of fish magically travel hundreds of miles from the ocean to their home waters to complete their life cycles and start a whole new population. These dams prevented these species from getting back to and utilizing a great deal of their home habitat.”

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) saw the problem years ago.

“Over the last few decades, people here in the northwest started to recognize that salmon and steelhead runs were decreasing,” said Tim Porter, Assistant Fish Biologist, ODFW, Prineville office. “While they saw it pretty early on, it was the anglers who really got on board and got the public’s attention about the problem.”

Ted Brownrigg, Chapter President of Trout Unlimited’s Deschutes Chapter agrees.

“Anglers were out on the rivers and they saw the changes. They started seeing all the dams going in and they got very concerned about the migration of native fish species,” said Brownrigg. “If you’re not an outdoors person you might not see it — but the anglers did. Anglers are a passionate group and very conservation-minded. They shared that knowledge through their clubs and organizations, making their voices heard throughout the country.”

Discussions among various agencies began in the 1990s about how to restore fish passage on the Crooked River. While there was much discussion, very little was accomplished due to landowner issues.

The challenge was compounded by the fact that there are three other dams below the Stearns Dam — the Rice-Baldwin, People’s Irrigation District, and Opal Springs Dams — that impeded fish passage.

“About six years ago, an innovative fish passage structure was built on the People’s Irrigation District diversion dam just outside of Prineville, allowing the movement of both adult and juvenile Redband trout and newly reintroduced steelhead and salmon to access aquatic habitat,” said Brett Hodgson, Deschutes District Fish Biologist with the ODFW. “But to achieve maximum fish passage, we need to provide passage at all three sites,”

About 10 years ago, the CRWC, acting as the “hub of the wheel” for a number of agencies interested in removing the Stearns Dam, saw an opportunity. The CRWC convinced the landowner, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the current dam owner, Quail Valley Ranch, that the timing was right, funding-wise, to have the dam removed in 2013.

“All the pieces just started falling in place; it was clearly in the best interests of both the BLM and Quail Valley Ranch to remove the dam in 2013 rather than wait and risk the grant funding drying up,” added Gannon.

The CRWC’s funding partners for this project include the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and American Rivers. Total project cost is approximately $280,000.

Agencies and groups actively involved include the BLM, ODFW, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Trout Unlimited, and the River Design Group, which is providing the engineering and design of the project.

“Since the dam fulfilled its purpose and was no longer utilized for irrigation, we took the opportunity to investigate the feasibility of its removal,” said Michelle McSwain, Assistant Field Manager with the Prineville District BLM. “This hard look at its potential removal began in 2004 with the Pelton-Round Butte Dam Settlement Agreement, which reintroduced anadromous fish upstream of the Pelton-Round Butte dam complex. In fact, money from the Pelton Fund, which originated from the Agreement, was used to fund studies to determine options for fish passage, including dam removal.”

The actual removal of the Stearns Dam is a challenging step-by-step process.

“We are removing a structure that is over 100 years old that nobody really knows what’s inside it — so it’s a major challenge. Rivers are inherently dynamic, so it is difficult and critical to gain control of the flow over the dam and direct it through a temporary opening,” said Scott Wright, Water Resources Engineer with the River Design Group.

Earlier this year, the CRWC started the bidding process for the heavy construction required to remove the dam. Robinson and Owen Heavy Construction Inc., Sisters, was selected for the project.

“We’ve done a lot of in-stream and de-watering projects, so this is right in our wheelhouse,” said Rod Robinson, Owner and Vice President, Robinson and Owen Heavy Construction.

The company started staging the project last week. They had to first build a gravel access road on the side of the river rugged enough to hold large excavators and numerous off-road dump trucks.

They then brought in huge sand-filled bags, which have been used to block river flow from the areas of the dam initially being removed. Actual demolition of the dam will begin this week in carefully choreographed steps.

“So far, it’s going as planned. We’re on schedule, but the biggest challenge is going to be keeping the water contained and away from our work area. And we really don’t know what’s under the concrete shell, but we don’t really expect to have any problems,” said Olin Sitz, Foreman with Robinson and Owen Heavy Construction.

Thursday, Oct. 24, at 9 a.m., has been designated as the day and time when the first “notch” will be cut into the dam, allowing some water to flow. It’s also the day when media and interested onlookers are being invited to see the work in process.

The history and removal of the Stearns Dam is being compiled into a documentary video by a Prineville media services company, Jakie Spring Media. The finished video will be widely distributed as an example of how various agencies and stakeholders, all working toward the same goal of fish habitat restoration, can accomplish good things.

“We’ll be using footage from time-lapse cameras, flying cameras, cameras attached to machinery, as well as underwater cameras and on-site interviews with people involved in this project. It’s really great to be helping the Crooked River Watershed Council tell the big story of the Stearns Dam removal,” said Stu Ehr, videographer and editor with Jakie Spring Media.

Gannon sees the removal of the Stearns Dam as a crucial step for the entire local watershed.

“This is one step in the entire process of restoring fish habitat to the lower watershed below Ochoco and Bowman dams. These target species are not going to get past these dams in the near future. So, back in 2008, we inventoried 12 structures that needed to be addressed for fish passage and, to date, we’ve got about six of them addressed. Now with Stearns Dam being removed, it’s down to five.”



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