Connecting partners to reconnect streams in the Northeast

A couple of tips before heading into the field to assess road-stream crossings, like bridges and culverts. First, wear hip waders. Ideally in your size. Second, prepare to face any number of different hazards along the way: rocky embankments, high velocity streams, deep scour pools, mosquitoes, fences, poison ivy, thorns, or much worse.

Scott Jackson

UMass Extension Professor Scott Jackson leads a training on assessing road-stream crossings for the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative, which brings together diverse practitioners who share an interest in restoring aquatic connectivity across the region, such as Betty Ketcham from the New York Department of Transportation. (Bridget Macdonald/North Atlantic LCC)

“There may be guard dogs and swans and other things that could attack you in the worst possible way,” pointed out University of Massachusetts Amherst Extension Professor Scott Jackson during a recent field training for the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC) held in Albany, N.Y.  He laughed when he said it, but in that way that can only mean he’s felt the wrath of a swan or two.

“So in some cases, you just have to make your best judgment based on what you can see from the right-of-way itself.”

Coordinating these invaluable in-person judgments of the condition of bridges and culverts throughout the Northeast is the mission of the NAACC, a partnership of universities, nonprofits, transportation agencies, and federal and state resource managers supported by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery projects. By aligning efforts and individuals focused on aquatic connectivity across the region, the NAACC is helping to tackle a problem that is bigger than any one entity, with shared resources, supportive infrastructure, and ground-level assistance like the Albany training where Jackson shared his personal insight on how to get the job done.

“Where you can get better access, go ahead,” he offered, adding. “Where you can’t, you still need to try and answer the questions.”

By “answer the questions,” Jackson is referring to completing the NAACC’s Stream Crossing Survey Data Form – five pages worth of measurements and observations comparable in detail to the data your physician collects while performing your annual checkup. Plus photos.

But considering just what damaged road-stream crossings can mean for the range of different organisms that need to move through aquatic systems in order to survive, it seems well worth the effort, and the potential swan encounters.

“Imagine having to swim against high-velocity water and then leap to get through a pipe,” said Jackson. Then while you’re at it, imagine that future generations depend upon whether or not you can accomplish that feat. For a species like Eastern brook trout that needs to migrate to cold water to spawn, that’s what’s at stake.

perched_culvert

When the opening of a culvert is “perched” – meaning it is above the water surface – it makes it challenging if not impossible for fish to swim through. (UMass Amherst)

Unfortunately, the majority of road-stream crossings in the region aren’t doing brook trout and other aquatic organisms any favors. Not a single one of the 6,030 culverts that have been cataloged so far in the NAACC database is considered to afford “full aquatic passability”, as determined by a combination of height, width, openness, substrate and span. That doesn’t bode well for the hundreds of thousands of other crossings in the region that have yet to be assessed, but it certainly underscores the need to do so, and the value of coordinating the enormous effort it will take to accomplish the task.

The NAACC announced its official launch June 8, and not a moment too soon to gain ground on a problem that is growing increasingly urgent thanks to climate change.

The devastating impacts of Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storms Irene brought attention to the potential for extreme storm events to completely overwhelm and damage outdated road-stream crossing infrastructure, leading to fallout for both human and natural communities – from flooding to erosion to the loss of future fish.

The keys to efficiently addressing this problem in the face of climate change are the aforementioned survey protocol and database, which offer diverse partners spread out across a broad geographic area a common protocol for conducting assessments, and a central storehouse for the resulting data, including prioritization scores that will be used to inform where upgrades or replacements need to happen first to address human safety and aquatic passage.

Tom Hoffman, a restoration biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish Conservation Office who attended the Albany program, emphasized that a uniform protocol is essential for scaling up aquatic restoration efforts in the Northeast, and beyond.

“We have been doing a lot of culvert assessments, and are planning on doing a lot more, so we have been searching for a standardized protocol that we could use regionwide, if not nationwide,” Hoffman said. “This is a really good protocol for rapid assessment, and we have already used it on some of our lands.”

But ultimately, the long-term success of the partnership is incumbent upon connecting and supporting a network of dedicated individuals on the ground. People who are willing to pull on the waders, negotiate the rocky embankments, and face the aggressive birds.

People like Meghan Long, an Aquatic Specialist with New York State’s Hudson River Estuary Program who attended the training in Albany. Asked about the value of the NAACC, Long described a combination bridge and culvert she had come upon with her colleagues while in the field earlier that spring. “The structure was decayed, had some scour pools, and following it was a culvert that was perched,” she said, referring to the term used when the mouth of a culvert has become suspended above the water as a result of erosion.

“We just thought: ‘Wow, if I were an eel or a small fish like a herring, it would be difficult for me to pass through,’” Long said. “That would be the end of the line.”

More about the Hurricane Sandy funded bridge and culvert study: http://www.fws.gov/hurricane/sandy/projects/AquaticConnectivity.html

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