Replacing elevated road culverts could enhance trout migration

When placed right, road culverts can become trout habitat; when placed wrong, they can impede migrat

Years ago, when I worked for a county highway department, one of the jobs we did on a pretty regular basis was replacing culverts.

Our department mostly cared for little two-lane roads, so this kind of work wasn’t a big production. Our excavator would dig a trench across the road and pull out the old pipe, usually cast iron or corrugated metal anywhere from one to three feet in diameter.

Then we would lay a new pipe in the trench, make sure it had a slope of half a bubble on the level, and fill the trench back in.

Usually, these culverts simply carried water from the ditch along one side of the road to a more low-lying area on the other. But some of these roads were deep in the Catskill Mountains. And some of these culverts may, in fact, have carried small trout streams, the kind that serve as nurseries for young, wild trout.

I was reminded of all this when I saw that Trout Unlimited and the Orvis Co. are teaming up on a new effort to open up 1,000 miles of fishable streams across the country to trout and salmon by simply replacing culverts — in the right way.

Many streams small enough to flow through a culvert are also large enough to be trout habitat.

The problem occurs when a culvert is “perched” — its outfall is elevated above the stream, so fish have no way to swim upstream. Culverts like these are as bad as dams when it comes to the ability of trout to migrate to spawning areas or move to cooler water during summer heat waves.The solution — properly repairing or replacing culverts — is relatively simple. (After all, my buddies and I at the highway department were hardly rocket scientists.)

“Culverts are significant imped­iments to fish passage and survival — just as signif­icant as a major dam — but the solution is dramatically simpler, costs less, and the overall benefits to many watersheds is profound,” said Dave Perkins, vice chairman of Orvis. “By removing these impediments, we not only add vital habitat for fish, but we also open many miles of fishable waters for anglers. We’re proud to partner with TU in this effort to engage the fly-fishing community in support of this often overlooked opportunity to dramatically improve fish habitat across the country.”

Orvis has committed to $90,000 in matching funds to the project and asking customers to help. TU says the first two streams to be worked on will be Murphy Brook in Vermont and Tabor Brook in New Hampshire, both tributaries of the upper Connecticut River.

This work will restore brook trout access to dozens of miles of streams, the organization says.

Other streams slated for culvert rehab are Kinne Brook, a tributary to the Westfield River in Mass­achusetts, along with streams in Virginia, Oregon, Maine, Wyoming and Wisconsin.

“Opening up 1,000 miles of new habitat for trout and salmon over the next 10 years is an ambitious goal, but we think we can do it,” said Elizabeth Maclin, TU’s vice president for eastern conser­vation. “We’re lucky to have dedicated partners like the people at Orvis. They’ve always been very supportive of the work we do, and their commitment to this project means the world to us.”

So if our crew did replace culverts that carried trout streams, I hope we did a good job.

But more to the point, maybe local governments and TU chapters in New York and other trout states will start thinking about whether some simple culvert maintenance or replacement could have a big impact on trout habitat.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at [email protected]

Categories: -Sports

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