New York

Improving Road-Stream Crossings


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See the before and after results of culverts that have already been improved.

Rethinking Culverts

See why fish-friendly, climate-resilient structures are important to our future and how partnerships are the key to making them a reality.

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Underneath New York’s highways and roads lay more than one million culverts—drains that connect thousands of stream segments. Effective culverts permit water and wildlife to travel without interruption. But recent severe storms have also brought to light the importance of culverts and the role they can play in helping communities become more resilient in a changing climate.

Visit the Climate-Friendly Stream Crossings Toolkit, a compilation of resources, tools, and best practices from organizations around the country covering a wide range of topics related to improving culverts.

Why do New York's culverts need to be improved? 

Roads are important to communities: they provide a way to get to work, to visit with family and friends, to connect people with emergency services they may need, and much more. Rivers are also important: they provide freshwater, habitat for fish and other species, and places to paddle and to swim.

Where roads and streams meet, crossings including bridges and culverts are put into place to carry a stream underneath a road. While there are more than a million culverts in New York State, and as essential as they are, these conduits go mostly unnoticed—at least until there are problems. 

When culverts are too small or are poorly designed for the streams they carry, they can block fish like brook trout from moving upstream to reach cooler waters. They can also clog with natural debris during storms, causing road damage and requiring expensive repairs. Larger culverts with open bottoms allow fish to cross under roads more safely to reach spawning areas and colder water havens. They also allow higher water volumes and natural floating debris and rocks to pass through—reducing the risks of flooding that can damage homes and property and the likelihood of their failure. 

What is The Nature Conservancy doing?
  • Improving high priority stream crossings: The Conservancy has secured over $800,000 in private and government grant funding to replace and retrofit high ecological priority, flood-vulnerable culverts in the Adirondacks. As of January 2016, we have worked with government and non-profit partners to complete three culvert replacement and two culvert retrofit projects in the Ausable River Watershed. These on-the-ground implementation projects connect over 65 miles of previously fragmented fish habitat, mitigate future flood damage, improve safety on vital local road networks, and reduce maintenance costs for communities. Read more about these projects in the Sun Community News and Lake Placid News.
  • Mapping priority sites for improvements: While solutions to problematic culverts are readily available, the costs for upgrades or retrofits can be significant. That’s why the Conservancy worked with local government leaders and the state Department of Transportation to develop a prioritization tool for the Lake Champlain basin and a prioritization tool for the Ausable River watershed. These tools are helping state, county, and town highway departments focus their limited resources toward culvert projects that address ecological, economic, and community needs.
  • Providing tools for the NYS Department of Transportation (NYSDOT): We are helping NYSDOT with incorporating climate vulnerabilities into transportation and design plans and developing a decision support tool that integrates the agency’s triple bottom line of addressing ecological, economic, and social needs.
  • Coordinating a regional network (scaling up): In partnership with the University of Massachusetts, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and many state agencies, the Conservancy is helping to lead the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative, a partnership of public and private organizations working in thirteen states to assess and prioritize road-stream crossings. This network shares a common assessment protocol and database to help with regional priority setting.
  • Analyzing economics: The Conservancy report, An Economic Analysis of Improved Road-Stream Crossings, highlights the economic, social, and ecological benefits of well-designed culverts as well as the key role they can play in adapting infrastructure to a changing climate. The report presents the monetary trade-offs of investing in well-designed culverts in the short- and long-term, current economic and regulatory constraints for implementing well-designed culverts, and recommendations for moving forward at scale. ticipated long-term outcomes? 

 

WHAT ARE THE ANTICIPATED LONG-TERM OUTCOMES?

The Conservancy is working to bolster the resilience of both freshwater systems and human communities to climate change. Many of the predicted changes are already being observed and felt. In the Lake Champlain Basin, where air temperatures are expected to increase up to 11° F, water temperatures in segments of the Ausable River are on average warmer than tolerable for brook trout for 30 days of the year. Similarly, more frequent extreme precipitation is exacerbating the risks of major flooding and damage to roads and property.

By piloting this work in the Adirondacks, we are investing in a landscape where the Conservancy’s local chapter is a respected leader in forging effective and diverse partnerships, providing scientific information, and securing much-needed resources for local communities.

This type of work—including computer modeling, field assessments, culvert upgrades, engineering designs, etc.—can be replicated. We continue to expand our networks, sharing assessment and planning tools, building capacity in other places, and promoting sustained funding and policy actions to help ensure that climate-resilient and fish-friendly road stream crossings become business-as-usual in New York State and beyond.

 

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