Until 2015, the intersection of River Road and Roaring Brook in North Elba, N.Y., posed a risk to travelers passing through the scenic Adirondack community — whether people, fish or wildlife.
“There was a twin pipe culvert that was subject to be clogged with debris whenever there was significant rainfall, so quite often the county would have to go remove debris or even repair the road due to that increased flow,” explained Jim Dougan, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Public Works for Essex County, where North Elba is located.
“It was a constant maintenance issue and a public safety issue.”
For Michelle Brown, Senior Conservation Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter, it was also an aquatic connectivity issue. As if the debris that frequently choked the culvert wasn’t enough of a barrier, the outlet was perched well above the plunge pool. It wasn’t a passageway for fish; it was a dead end.
Now River Road is the site of a new bridge built through collaboration between the county, TNC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, featuring a spacious open-bottom box culvert that allows Roaring Brook, and any debris within, to flow freely below.
The intersecting concerns for people and wildlife at the intersection made it a natural place for Brown and Dougan to work together. But before the establishment of the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC), they might never have even crossed paths.
“We use the NAACC to identify crossings that are ecological priorities, and then we go out to talk with municipalities about where their priorities are from a flooding or maintenance perspective,” said Brown. “It helps us find places where we can marry those two things.”
Supported by Hurricane Sandy resilience funding coordinated by the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the NAACC provides standard assessment protocols and a centralized database that is helping to unite partners across the Northeast region around compatible goals for upgrading road-stream crossings that are outdated, undersized, damaged, or all of the above.
Josh Thiel, Aquatic Habitat Protection Program Manager for the New York State Department of Environmental Protection (DEC), explained that flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee provided a dramatic catalyst for different priorities to converge in 2011.
“There was lots of infrastructure damage, particularly to road-stream crossings, and when it came time to rebuild, we saw an opportunity to improve these structures by correlating flood damaged areas with aquatic connectivity needs,” Thiel said. But that opportunity revealed a glaring need. “We didn’t have a way to see the big picture, focus on priorities, and justify where to spend money,” he said.
The NAACC responded to that need by providing a common platform for people in different fields to communicate about road-stream crossings, and setting the stage for collaboration. Whether your jurisdiction is the road or the stream, there will be a point where they overlap.
When it came time to plan the upgrade in North Elba, the priorities of the public works officials and the scientists were almost perfectly aligned. The difference between the proposed width of the opening under the new bridge and the optimal width scientists had in mind for fish and wildlife passage was just two feet.
“It would have been fine for fish, but they were thinking about small mammals like foxes as well,” said Dougan.
The county had done its due diligence. The design reflected requirements for accommodating the streambed in a high-flow event, but for Dougan, there was no question about going the extra distance.
“Sure, you need a little more concrete and steel, but it’s an incremental cost in the long run if a minor change to the baseline standard lets you leave a shelf inside the culvert to allow small animals to pass through,” said Dougan.
“Making it a little bigger also makes it more resilient to the changing storm patterns we are seeing,” he said, adding, “Our goals aren’t really that far apart.”
Joining forces to replace the culvert was a win-win, and an opportunity to leverage resources. “Many of these small towns have tiny transportation budgets, so no matter how willing they are, it is a challenge to ask them to put in a crossing that could cost up to 500 thousand dollars,” said Brown.
While funding is incentive for bringing new participants into the NAACC, the resulting collaboration is the real payoff.
“I got more than just grant dollars out of this project, I got a partnership,” said Dougan.
And that’s worth a lot more than a couple extra feet of steel.