Stearns Dam completely gone from Crooked River

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin

The Crooked River is finding its new form where the Stearns Dam stood for more than a century, about a month and a half after the removal of the dam.

In late October, the dam along the river south of Prineville came out as part of a project led by the Crooked River Watershed Council. Most signs of the dam, which was visible from state Highway 27, are gone, said Chris Gannon, director for the council.

“If you didn’t know what you were looking at you wouldn’t know that the dam had been there,” he said.

The Stearns Dam removal opened up 12 miles of the river for fish movement, from Stearns Dam’s previous location to the Bowman Dam upstream. A larger effort to return steelhead and salmon to the Crooked River is ongoing and the dam removal was the most recent fish impediment to be changed or removed.

Next, the council plans to install some sort of fish passage over or around the Rice-Baldwin Dam about a mile downstream from the former Stearns Dam site.

But the work isn’t completely done where Stearns Dam used to be. Gannon said the council organized vegetation plantings this fall to help strengthen the reshaped riverbank and erase a short access road from the highway used during the dam removal.

“It is kind of a race to beat the weeds,” Gannon said.

They planted willow, cottonwood, dogwood and other riverside plants. More vegetation will be planted this spring and next fall.

There also may be some work yet to do to keep cattle from crossing the changed section of the Crooked River. When the Stearns Dam was in place it created an almost 1,000-foot-long pool in the river. The pool was deep enough that cattle, which graze on the surrounding land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, didn’t look to cross.

Now, without the dam, the river will run lower and cattle may wander across. Gannon said the BLM and the council are talking about potentially installing a fence on the highway side of the river.

“We really don’t want cattle on that highway,” Gannon said. “It is not safe.”

A homesteader built the dam just over a century ago for the sake of cattle, using it to divert water from the river to his pastures. Sidney Stearns set rocks and logs in the river in 1911 to create the Stearns Dam. Over the next 20 years, ice blocks and other debris smashed into the dam, leading to regular repairs. To put a stop to the repairs the Stearns Family reinforced the dam with concrete in 1934.

While the Quail Valley Ranch had the water right linked to the dam more recently, which was on land overseen by the BLM, the dam hadn’t been used to divert water for decades. Instead, the ranch draws water from a different source downstream.

Prepping for the dam removal took about a week, breaking apart the concrete and rock another week and cleaning up took about another week, said Scott Wright, principal engineer for the Corvallis-based River Design Group Inc., which planned the removal of the Stearns Dam.

Removing old dams can lead to surprises that change plans during the project, he said, but this removal went smoothly. ”

“It was uneventful, and that is the best we could ask for,” Wright said.

While there hasn’t been any organized collection and study of fish around where the Stearns Dam used to stand, Tim Porter, assistant district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Prineville, said he talked to an angler there who said he was catching some nice trout and whitefish.

Porter said it is a little early to tell how fish are responding to the reopened river. So far, flows have been fairly steady since the dam removal. Come spring there will be high flows, fast water and likely many changes to how river rock around the old dam site is dispersed.

“(Spring flow) will do more to push the gravel around than the flow right now,” Porter said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com.

Photo Courtesy Scott Wright / River Design Group, Inc. Stearns Dam in the Crooked River south of Prineville, along state Highway 27, in July 2012.
Photo Courtesy Scott Wright / River Design Group, Inc. The former site of Stearns Dam on the Crooked River south of Prineville, along state Highway 27, following the removal of the more-than-century-old dam in October.