Why do New York's culverts need to be improved?
When culverts are too small or are poorly designed in relation to the streams they carry, both human communities and aquatic ecosystems may be at risk. As many communities across the Northeast saw in the wake of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, undersized and misaligned culverts are more likely to blow out during floods, creating safety hazards, potentially damaging roads, structures and property, and requiring replacement. These failures are expensive: in addition to the hard costs associated with infrastructure repair, there are a cascade of other costs to local communities and businesses in terms of lost revenues when roads are impassable or rivers can no longer support economically important species like brook trout.
What is The Nature Conservancy doing?
- Providing tools for the NYS Department of Transportation (NYSDOT): In the wake of recent storms, the Conservancy recognizes that strategic replacement of poorly designed culverts can improve fish and wildlife habitat while also making communities more resilient to strong storms. To this end, the Conservancy has been working with NYSDOT to identify places where road-stream crossing improvements would have the greatest impact for fish and wildlife while also keeping roads safe for people and minimizing flood impacts. Current work includes 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.
- Mapping priority culvert upgrades: 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 was used in the Ausable River Watershed, which drains into Lake Champlain. This tool is now being utilized across the Lake Champlain basin to help state, county, and town highway departments focus their limited resources toward culvert projects that address ecological, economic, and community needs.
- Improving high priority culverts: As of June 2014, the Conservancy has secured over $800,000 in private and government grant funding to replace and retrofit 5-8 high ecological priority and flood-vulnerable road-stream crossings in the Ausable River Watershed. We will undertake these projects, which are set to begin in the summer of 2014, in partnership with local departments of transportation, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. These on-the-ground implementation projects will restore access to at least 40 miles of upstream coldwater habitat for native fish, mitigate future flood damage, improve safety on vital local road networks, and reduce maintenance costs for communities.
- Working with partners: The Conservancy has teamed up with non-profit and government partners to field survey almost 400 road-stream crossings in Lake Champlain and lower Hudson watersheds to assess their conditions in terms of biological importance, vulnerability to flooding, and other safety issues. Mapping and ranking these sites contributes to the bottom line of highway departments. Implementation work will raise awareness and capacity about how to plan for and carry out stream crossing upgrade projects.
- Analyzing economics: The recently released 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. Conservancy scientists and partners also published a paper in 2014 that reviews a case study of effective culvert designs in Vermont.
- Coordinating a network of organizations across the Northeast: In partnership with the University of Massachusetts, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and many state agencies, the Conservancy is launching a project that will create a network of public and private organizations working across the region to assess road-stream crossings. This network will develop common assessment protocols and databases to help with regional priority setting.
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 these 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.
This type of work—including computer modeling, field assessments, culvert upgrades, engineering designs, etc.—can be replicated. We will be working over the next 5 to 10 years to share the suite of assessment and planning tools we have developed, build capacity in other places, and promote 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. By piloting this work in the Adirondacks, we continue to invest 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.