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.
Before Tropical Storms Irene and Lee and Superstorm Sandy ripped through our region, the Conservancy had been working with New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) to identify places where culvert upgrades would have the greatest impact on improving stream crossings for fish and wildlife while also keeping roads safe for people.
But in the wake of recent storms, the Conservancy recognized that strategic replacement of inadequate culverts can go a long way toward protecting wildlife habitat and making communities more resilient to strong storms. Larger culverts without bottoms, for instance, allow fish to cross under roads more safely to reach spawning areas and coldwater havens. They also allow higher water volumes and floating debris to pass through -- reducing the risks of flooding that can damage homes and property.
While solutions to problematic culverts are readily available, the costs for upgrades or retrofits can be significant. That’s why the Conservancy developed a prioritization tool that is now being used in the Ausable watershed, which drains into Lake Champlain. Future work will include expanding this tool statewide to help NYSDOT focus its limited resources toward culvert projects that meet the agency’s triple bottom line to address ecological, economic and social needs.
In a related project, the Conservancy recently teamed up with non-profit and government partners to field survey almost 400 road/stream crossings in the Lake Champlain and lower Hudson regions to assess their conditions in terms of biological importance, vulnerability to flooding, and other safety issues. Mapping and ranking these sites will help highway maintenance crews get the most out of their budgets.
Looking forward, the Conservancy aims to take its work and partnership with NYSDOT to the next level: using the culvert database as a foundation for incorporating climate vulnerabilities into transportation and design plans.
Conservancy scientist Michelle Brown, the project lead, says this work shows the importance of improving climate resilience locally.
“Freshwater and climate resilience work go hand in hand,” says Brown “Based on our current work, we have determined which areas can achieve the most ‘bang-for-the-buck’ in terms of meeting ecological, social, and economic goals, and now we need to focus on these places to build their resilience.”
Brown also emphasized that the NYS 2100 Commission report highlights culverts specifically as a way to protect against future storms and flooding. “This will help as we move forward in replacing older designs with new designs,” she says.
“Our work is about building resilient natural communities and building resilient human communities,” says Brown, and the Conservancy’s continued efforts on culverts may be able to do just that.