Removal of Stearns Dam supports steelhead reintroduction program in Oregon’s Deschutes River Basin
Stearns Dam is the latest structure, in a now notable list, to be removed from the Pacific Northwest’s landscape. Joining the ranks of Elwha, Condit, and Marmot, Stearns Dam blocked salmon and steelhead from accessing the upper reaches of the Crooked River in the Deschutes River Basin. Today, fish will no longer face the impassable barrier on their migration to and from the ocean.
The dam was constructed by a pioneering family in 1911. Its primary purpose was to divert water to irrigate ranch lands. After several seasonal floods requiring extensive repairs to the dam, the rock and log-filled structure was retrofitted with a concrete shell in 1934, at which point fish passage was severely limited. Impaired fish passage, among many other factors, contributed to the decline of the steelhead run. By 1999, Middle Columbia River steelhead was listed as a species threatened with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The removal of Stearns Dam will contribute to ongoing efforts to restore steelhead to the basin. In 2013, NOAA Fisheries designated a population of Middle Columbia River steelhead as “experimental.” The designation will support the reintroduction of steelhead to historical spawning and rearing habitat in the upper Deschutes, helping to re-establish the population. Spring Chinook salmon is also being reintroduced to the Deschutes, though this population is not in danger of extinction and thus not listed under the ESA. Efforts are underway to restore safe upstream and downstream fish passage, and the removal of Stearns Dam is contributing to the success of the reintroduction program. Fish now have access to 12 additional miles of quality habitat.
Restoring fish passage in the Crooked River was ten years in the making. The dam’s removal is the result of collaboration among the Crooked River Watershed Council, NOAA’s Restoration Center, American Rivers, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the local landowner. NOAA’s Restoration Center, American Rivers, and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board provided financial and technical assistance.
Photo credits: Home page and this page photo of steelhead, John McMillan, NOAA. This page photo of Stearns Dam removal, NOAA.