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In New York, priorities for public safety and conservation converge at road-stream crossings

Historic flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 demonstrated the need to update bridges and culverts in New York for public safety and aquatic passage. Now partners across the state are using resources from the North Atlantic LCC-supported North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative to find opportunities to work together on updating road-stream crossings for the benefit of people, fish, and wildlife.
In New York, priorities for public safety and conservation converge at road-stream crossings

The former twin-pipe culvert at the intersection of River Road and Roaring Brook. Photo: The Nature Conservancy

Until 2015, the intersection of River Road and Roaring Brook in North Elba, N.Y., posed a problem for public safety in the community, and for fish and wildlife passing through it.

“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.”

New bridge at Roaring Brook
Now a new bridge allows fish, wildlife, and debris to pass safely beneath River Road. Photo: The Nature Conservancy

For Michelle Brown, Senior Conservation Scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter (TNC), it was also an issue for aquatic connectivity. If the debris that frequently choked the culvert didn’t create enough of a barrier, the outlet was perched a few feet 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 through freely.

The overlapping concerns for people and nature 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 LCC, 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.

Although many different organizations and agencies across New York were starting to inventory road-stream crossings and barriers, they were all working independently. “The projects were all related, but they were disjointed. They didn’t speak well to one another,” he said. “There was a screaming need for a centralized place for this information.”

The UMass Amherst's Stream Continuity project, the basis for what is now the NAACC, responded to that need. Today Thiel serves as a coordinator for the NAACC in New York, helping to generate awareness, provide training, and administer a grant program that supports upgrades based on ecological benefits, which more often than not overlap with public safety benefits as well.

“The state’s leadership in adopting that protocol has been a fabulous impetus for coalescing a gigantic state where bits and pieces of this work had been happening already,” said Brown.

Brook trout in Roaring Brook
Upgrading culverts removes barriers for species like Eastern brook trout that need to migrate upstream to survive. Photo: The Nature Conservancy
By providing a common language and platform for people in any field to communicate about road-stream crossings, the NAACC has helped to foster partnerships between municipal officials and conservation professionals who both consider upgrading bridges and culverts to be a top priority for different but parallel reasons. Or rather, perpendicular reasons: streams and roads.

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 and the optimal width the 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. “So we are piloting a cost-share model where every partner contributes something.”

More than just funding, partners contributed individual strengths. The county provided traffic control and detours to route people around the construction site, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided in-stream restoration expertise. “It’s not just about right-sizing the infrastructure, but about making sure the stream is functional, the slopes are correct, the habitat is in good condition,” said Brown, explaining, “We are addressing problems that resulted from having an improper passage structure in place.”

Along with scientific expertise, TNC contributed grant money from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Program supported by U.S. Department of Interior.

DEC also offers grants that use the NAACC aquatic passability scores as a ranking criteria for applications in hopes of relating these conditions and seeing problem sites improved.

“That potential link to funding is one of the reasons we have really high engagement in New York,” said Thiel. More than a third of the total records in the NAACC database -- 12,056 out of 30,684 -- are in New York.

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.



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