Autopsy of a Dam Removal: Stearns Dam

Stearns Dam, During Construction, Crooked River, OR | DeniseHoffert-Hay

Stearns Dam, During Construction, Crooked River, OR | Denise Hoffert-Hay

This blog is a part of our ongoing series this month on the Challenges of River Restoration.

One of our goals at American Rivers is to make dam removal accessible— to make it something that local watershed groups, state natural resource agencies, and others feel capable of taking on. It’s one of the reasons we invest so much effort in developing resource materials and leading project manager trainings all around the country. However, the downside of our visibility on dam removal is the occasional email from a curious member of the public wondering why a particular project took so long to complete. I understand the incredulity over seemingly small projects that appear to take a significant amount of time to go from start to finish. So, in the spirit of a medical examiner, today we are going to pick a project, break it down, and determine why it took so much time to complete.


Patient: Stearns Dam
Location: Crooked River (Oregon)
Height: 6 feet
Width: 150 feet
Cause of Death: Impeding fish passage for salmon and steelhead
Date Removed: October 2013
Miles Reconnected: 12 miles
# Years to Remove: 10 years

Circumstances Leading Up To Death:

The seemingly innocuous Stearns Dam joined a list of other note-worthy Pacific Northwest dams when it was removed, reconnecting habitat for Chinook Salmon and Mid-Columbia River Steelhead. While 10 years may seem like an inordinate amount of time, it is the reality we sometimes face when negotiating with landowners that have serious concerns about a project moving forward and when there are permitting issues to resolve.

In the case of the Stearns Dam, the dam was owned by a private rancher and had, historically, been used to facilitate an irrigation diversion. The property it was on was owned by the Bureau of Land Management. Navigating each of those interests individually would almost always increase the timeline of a dam removal. When you add in the sensitive nature of removing a diversion structure— even one no longer being utilized— it adds an additional layer of complexity to even getting the project off the ground.

Our local partners worked for several years with the landowners to bring this project to a decision point for dam removal. [Examiner’s Side Note: This doesn’t include the time it also takes to secure the funding necessary to develop and implement the project.]

American Rivers became more involved with this project in 2010 after providing funding through our national partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help develop engineering design plans. Each of the activities listed below was necessary to meet various state and federal permitting requirements and ensure protection of listed endangered species present in the channel.

Some Required Activities for Permitting Compliance:

  • Evaluation of sediment behind the dam
  • Evaluation of potential impacts to the channel following removal of the dam
  • Evaluation of the predicted change in channel bed elevation following removal of the dam
  • Historic and cultural survey to ensure there would not be impacts to any known (or unknown) Native American cultural sites in the project vicinity

After years of applications, meetings, reports, modeling, design plans, public outreach, and other activities, the Stearns Dam Removal Team finally accomplished their goal. Whew!

Determination: REMOVED

While the benefits of investing time in long-term projects may seem questionable, the payoff for projects like this high priority one on the Crooked River are worth that effort and help facilitate smoother negotiations at other dams and blockages in the same system. We also use lessons learned at projects like this to help us identify barriers to getting projects done so that we can work at the state, regional, and federal level on systemic changes that will allow more people to do good restoration work.

Each project is different. It’s fair to say that dam removal projects vary in scale and scope and that, for every project that takes several years to implement, there are several more dams that are removed in one to two years.

So… did you find this dam removal dissection helpful? Are there other dam removal projects that you would like to us to autopsy? Give us your feedback in the comments below!