Early Thanksgiving for Crooked River Steelhead
Construction to remove the Stearns Dam from the Crooked River in central Oregon kicked off this week when equipment staged along the river’s banks and fill was brought in to create the temporary access road for heavy equipment.
The monumental moment that has been over 5 years in the making occurred today when the dam was breached and this 12 mile section of the Crooked River began to flow freely for the first time in over 100 years. A state highway runs parallel to the river at the dam site, so no explosives were used to breach the structure. Instead, a trackhoe fitted with a hydraulic hammer chipped away at the aging concrete to break it into pieces that could be removed from the channel by another trackhoe with a bucket and thumb.
The full 80 cubic feet per second flow of the Crooked River came coursing through the twenty foot wide gap created in a matter of hours in a carefully orchestrated drawdown. The breach was done to allow the 1,000-foot long reservoir time to drain down a few feet in preparation for fish salvage.
A group of 30 volunteers will be at the site with nets and buckets to relocate any fish that become stranded in isolated pools away from the river’s main flow as the water level reaches a new equilibrium. By the afternoon, the water was drawn down one to two feet and held at that level, what had once been a stagnant pool, now has a sinuous channel taking shape as the river find its historic course.
In the still, late afternoon air, after a 70-degree day of sunshine, there was a smell of rotted vegetation as dropping water levels exposed aquatic plants that had been submerged for decades.
With a gap in the dam and the river diverted, equipment will turn to removal of the bulk of the dam, which can be done essentially in dry conditions. This structure that has for decades impeded resident redband trout and contributed to the extirpation of steelhead and salmon in the Crooked River will be removed before Thanksgiving, opening up 12 miles of habitat just downstream from the Crooked River’s Wild and Scenic corridor.