Friday, March 11, 2016

Why we celebrate 1000 culverts

When I first moved to wet Seattle from the dry Southwest, I spent every free moment I had driving up into the mountains in my little red Honda civic hatchback to seek out trails and campsites that opened into a spectacular new world for me.  Trees bigger than my arms could reach around. Ferns and moss carpeting the forest floor.  Alpine meadows full of wildflowers with whistling marmots breaking the silence.  And water everywhere – dripping from the sky, tumbling down waterfalls and collecting in creeks, then streams, and finally large rivers.  It never occurred to me that all that water was creating havoc to the Forest Service roads I used to get to my favorite places.  Or that the old methods for channeling the water were devastating to native salmon such as Chinook, coho and chum along with steelhead, bull trout and many other native species.
 
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, OR.
What I did not notice, while I was carefully avoiding potholes and other obstacles on my way up to the trail, was that these roads all have ditches running alongside of them to collect water.  And every half mile or so there is often a buried pipe (culvert) to move the water collected in the ditch under the road, across to the other side, and out to a creek or stream or forest floor – just away from the road.  I also didn’t notice that each stream or river the road crossed needed a pipe/culvert so that the water in the stream could move under the roadbed.  Every road, even a dirt road in a forest, has a complex system of ditches, drains, pipes, culverts, bridges all trying to move water away to protect the road.
 
Seems like a big culvert but wild steelhead were unable to swim through to reach critical habitat.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest, WA
The problem is that they are just too old.  Most Forest Service roads were built nearly 50 years ago and like everything, degraded over time.  When the culverts get plugged or disintegrate, the water builds up like behind a dam and eventually bursts through the entire road fill.  There goes the road and access to my favorite trail.

The old culverts were also not designed to handle some of the water from the large storms we have lately.  Being too small, branches, twigs, rocks easily plug the pipes, which also leads to road wash-outs.  This winter, in a portion of the Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, two storms effectively closed down 45% of the forest because roads collapsed or bridges and culverts washed out.
 
This road wash-out dumped tons of sediment into an important salmon river and closed access to trails.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, WA
And the road engineers in the 1950’s didn’t think about all the native fish that swim upstream to spawn and swim downstream to reach the ocean.  Culverts act as barriers because fish often can’t jump into the culvert or the speed of the water in the culvert is too fast for a fish or there isn’t enough water for the fish to swim through the pipe.  It’s not just iconic fish like salmon – culverts are barriers to a whole slew of aquatic species including tiny macroinvertebrates, worms, amphipods, snails, giant salamanders, turtles, crayfish, and freshwater mussels.  These species are all important for healthy stream ecosystems, yet they are blocked from natural movement because of culverts.

At WildEarth Guardians, and tagging along with Forest Service road engineers on field trips, I’ve learned a lot about culverts.  I have seen that replacing old culverts with arched culverts that are sometimes 20 times larger really works to move water and salmon and protect the road during torrential storms.  I now know that there are thousands of culverts out there but the Forest Service needs money to fix them.  Some of that money comes from a program started 8 years ago called Legacy Roads and Trails. The program has one goal: to reduce impacts to water and fish from Forest Service roads, including culverts. Because we know we won’t see improvements in forests without money, we work hard every year to make sure funding continues.
 
To a fish, the river bed now is continuous, making it much easier to swim up and down stream.
Siuslaw National Forest, OR

So when I saw that a milestone in the Legacy Roads and Trails program was going to be reached – 1,000 culverts fixed – I thought we should celebrate!  The Forest Service was happy to tell the story of this success and our partners at The Wilderness Society and Trout Unlimited pitched in to help.  We held the first event on Capitol Hill in D.C. because our champions in the Senate and Congress are responsible for ensuring there is funding for this work.  Congressman Kilmer (WA-6th), Senator Merkley (OR), Senator Wyden (OR) and Forest Service Chief Tidwell all attended and spoke about how fixing culverts reconnects streams for fish and makes roads more resilient to storms.
 
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell at the 1000th Culvert Celebration on Capitol Hill.
But there is more to come.  On May 21 we will be part of a global event called World Fish Migration day.  Select forests across the U.S. will host field trips to highlight projects that show that fish need open rivers to migrate. 

And as we celebrate the accomplishments, we also look to the work that still needs to be done.  Just in Washington State, there are 994 barriers to fish passage that need to be fixed on national forest lands.  And that doesn’t include the smaller drainage culverts that are also falling apart.  Legacy Roads and Trails funds must increase to make progress on this looming problem.

At WildEarth Guardians, we know that roads are one of the top 3 threats to public lands.  The issue is complicated, receives little attention, and triggers strong emotions with the public.  We like these types of challenges and will keep working on solutions.

I still use roads to seek out trails but these days I also see the overgrown ditches, the plugged pipes and the decaying culverts along with the new arched culverts and bridges.  There are too many roads to fix all of them but by being smart about the work and making sure there are funds for the work, the next 1,000 culvert milestone could happen quicker.  This helps me get to my trailhead and helps salmon get home.
Coho salmon.
USFWS, Creative Commons

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