Tag Archives: culverts

Cooperative Project Benefits Wylie’s Brook Trout

Brook trout downstream

Credit: USFWS

Here we share a story talking about fish passage projects on Wylie Brook tributaries that opened up close to two miles of stream to the New York state fish. The original story written by Paula Piatt can be found here: http://www.outdoornews.com/2018/02/12/new-york-cooperative-project-benefits-wylies-brook-trout/

Coventry, N.Y. — For us, it’s as simple as driving over them; zipping along at 55 mph, we don’t even notice. But if you’re a brook trout, it’s an impassable barrier – the end of the road. And it doesn’t matter that miles of prime spawning and nursery habitat is on the other side.

Thanks, however, to a cooperative effort among several local, state and federal agencies, native brookies can now reach that habitat in Chenango County’s Wylie Brook watershed, and biologists expect them to thrive in the coming years.

Four recent fish passage projects on Wylie Brook tributaries have opened up close to two miles of stream to the New York state fish, and it was as easy as replacing a few road culverts. Not that it was really that simple. A coalition of partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Chenango County Highway Department, the town of Coventry and two private landowners all came together with time, funding and access to make the project a success.

“It takes a village to raise a brook trout,” said Gian Dodici, a fish and wildlife biologist with the USFWS’s field office in Cortland. “No one agency or group could get this done. We couldn’t do it without the DEC; DEC couldn’t do it without the town, and it goes on down.”

“It” is the replacement of four “perching” culverts along tributaries to Wylie Brook, a Class C watershed with 47.5 miles of main stream and tributaries, the majority of which flow through Chenango County.

The streams are in the Upper Susquehanna River drainage, a priority for the USFWS, and through another alliance, the Upper Susquehanna Conservation Alliance, Wylie was chosen for several projects that would reconnect the brook trout with their habitat upstream.

The first phase involved replacement of a culvert (purchased with Alliance funds and installed by the town of Coventry). This year, three additional projects were identified by DEC personnel.

“We identified brook trout downstream of the culverts, but there were problems in that they were one-way streets – the fish couldn’t get back (upstream),” said Dave Lemon, DEC’s Region 7 fisheries manager. “We were looking to reconnect the isolated populations. If catastrophic drought or flood, or something that happens in that system that wipes the fish out, there’s no way for that area to be repopulated.”

Perching culverts are common throughout the state. When roads cross streams, the fish and aquatic life are many times an afterthought of towns and counties under time and monetary constraints. Many of the culverts are undersized and, in the case of hillside highways, drops of two, three and even five feet are not uncommon.

The problem for the brook trout – or any other fish in the stream – is that they can’t make that jump.

“Brook trout can jump about a foot, so what we did in one section was build a series of steps,” said Lemon of one culvert that was perched five feet above the downstream bed. “We needed six structures, each dropping about a foot, with a certain space in between them.”

Stream construction work continued about 150 feet downstream to achieve the goal – all on private land. “Almost all of this was done with the cooperation of private landowners,” Lemon said.

And once the construction was finished, members of the Al Hazzard Chapter of Trout Unlimited spent some time planting willows along the streambank for stabilization and, eventually, cover.

The unnamed Wylie Brook tributaries, crossed by both county and town roads, are not “top of the list” when it comes to fishing hotspots. In fact, says Lemon, they’re not places he would send an angler looking to fish.

“These streams are really more about really good spawning and nursery habitat,” he said. “Wylie Brook itself is more fishable, but currently there is no formal public access. One section we did this year was on state forest land. Ultimately, I would like to see improved formal public access there.”

For Dodici, this was an “ecological restoration project,” aimed at bringing back prime brook trout habitat.

“What’s unique about this Wylie Brook drainage is that it’s almost exclusively native brook trout,” he said of the stream that’s only been stocked a handful of times since 1934, and then only with brook trout. The last – and final – stocking came in 1989.

“Most of the trout fisheries in that neck of the woods, there’s often a mix of brook and brown trout. At this point it’s an ecological benefit of reconnecting the watershed to all of its tribs and providing that nursery and spawning habitat, so if we ever realize the goal of the fishery in Wylie Brook itself, the ecology will be there to support that fishery,” he said.

Dodici estimates the cost of this year’s project at about $125,000, a large part of which came via in-kind services. DEC provided site identification, consulting, coordination and fish sampling work; USFWS contributed engineering, design and construction oversite, as well as $57,000 through its National Fish Passage Program for construction. The town of Coventry kicked in $10,000 for material and in-kind services.


Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands. Partners across the Northeast have matched the Service’s funding contribution nearly 5 to 1, contributing $56.1 million to the Service’s $12.5 million to restore aquatic connectivity for wildlife and protect communities.

“A Hero of Mythical Proportions”

In this guest blog, Trout Unlimited’s Ron Rhodes and Rich Redman explain why U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Madeleine Lyttle was selected as the organization’s 2017 Conservation Professional of the Year.

After Tropical Storm Irene dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on New England and the Northeast in 2011, the resulting flood damage was more severe than any in recent memory. Culverts, bridges, and roads were destroyed, causing a flurry of construction and emergency river channel work that often did more harm than good.

If you had surveyed the damage in the weeks following the storm, you would never have envisioned that in the years ahead, more than 220 miles of native brook trout habitat would be reconnected, following the removal of more than 20 problematic dams and culverts that had prevented fish and aquatic organisms passage for decades.


With Madeleine Lyttle’s help, this dam was removed by a coalition of groups, including the Greater Upper Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, opening 88 miles of brook trout habitat in Vermont’s White River watershed. (Credit: Trout Unlimited)

But Madeleine Lyttle, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, could see that future, and helped turn the tragedy into a triumph for conservation through her strong guidance and steady hand in the years that followed.

MLyttle 1

Madeleine Lyttle collects information on the river at this undersized culvert so engineers can redesign a fish-friendly culvert. (Credit: USFWS)

Working hand in hand with Trout Unlimited (TU) chapters from New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire in the Lake Champlain, Hudson River, and Connecticut River watersheds, Madeleine cobbled together a complex array of partners, harnessed more than $1.5 million in grants from FEMA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the TU “Embrace A Stream” program, and other sources, and leveraged the power of TU’s grassroots network to identify, assess, plan, implement, and monitor aquatic habitat restoration projects.

And so on September 29, TU Director of Volunteer Operations for the national organization, Jeffrey Yates, presented Madeleine with the 2017 National Conservation Professional Award.

“Indeed,” Jeff told the audience, “Madeleine is a hero of mythical proportions among Trout Unlimited chapters in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.”


Jeff Yates, Director of Volunteer Operations for Trout Unlimited, presents the 2017 Conservation Professional award to Madeleine Lyttle (Credit: Trout Unlimited)

Thanks to her efforts, there is growing awareness of how removing and replacing dams and culverts is not only good for trout, salmon, and other fish, but is a real benefit to towns and counties in helping withstand future flood events.

One of those communities benefiting from Madeleine’s passion and expertise is in Willsboro, New York, an hour east of the infamous Lake Placid and located on the Boquet River, about a mile upriver from Lake Champlain. The Boquet River was legendary for Atlantic salmon runs prior to 1864, until the Willsboro Dam was constructed to supply power for the Willsboro Pulp Mill. The area would later be identified as a superfund site because of all the discharge dumped into the river by the Mill. Eventually the site was cleaned up, with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation oversight. Then with Madeleine’s guidance, a suite of partners, including Vic Putman with Trout Unlimited, collaborated to have the obsolete dam removed and restore the region’s valuable fisheries.


Willsboro Dam before removal (Credit: USFWS)


Willsboro after removal (Credit: USFWS)

Countless dams and culverts across New England have come tumbling down, with fish returning to their historic waters thanks to Madeleine Lyttle’s years of work – “with lots more to come,” as Jeff noted at our annual meeting. Her technical expertise and guidance are often the difference between a project foundering or moving forward. She reluctantly takes credit, however, and is quick to remind everyone that the work can only be done with partnerships such as those between TU and the Service.

Helping Roaring Brook roar

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.


The former twin-pipe culvert at the intersection of Roaring Brook and River Road in North Elba, N.Y., was a dead end for fish. Photo: TNC


Now a new bridge allows fish, wildlife, and debris to pass safely underneath River Road. Credit: TNC

“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.


Upgrading culverts based on aquatic passability removes barriers for species like Eastern brook trout that need to migrate upstream to survive. Credit: TNC

“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.