Maine's Fishy Culverts
If your life depended on moving upstream, you’d care more about culverts.
Poorly constructed road culverts have been devastating for many creatures, from tiny aquatic organisms to big Atlantic salmon, and for my favorite fish, officially designated by the legislature as a Maine Heritage Fish, our wild and native brook trout.
This is no small problem. Maine’s cut of the federal stimulus package includes $1.7 million from NOAA to install better culverts in the upper Machias River to improve natural water flow and accessibility for sea-run fish. That’s $1.7 million, for just one stretch of one river.
Seth Koenig, executive director of Project SHARE, the Washington County organization that will administer the funds, told Bangor Daily News reporter Bill Trotter the federal money will be used to replace culverts. “Basically, the problem is undersized round culverts. In total, there will be about seventy sites affected.”
The project will also receive $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $150,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I’m no math wiz, but my calculator reports that this is about $35,000 per culvert. Perhaps they’re silver-lined.
They’ll begin replacing culverts any day now, another one of those “shovel-ready” jobs that is supposedly stimulating our economy and creating jobs.
Problem culverts also got the attention of the Maine legislature this year. The organization in which I serve as executive director, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, joined four environmental organizations in support of LD 1333, An Act to Ensure that Replacement Culverts Permit Fish Passage. The bill was sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree.
The environmental groups, to be fair, carried the water on this one, particularly the Maine Audubon Society whose lobbyist Jenny Burns Gray did a superb job on the bill, with a supporting cast of Maine Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Maine Council of Trout Unlimited. LD 1333 began its upstream swim as a major piece of climate control legislation, but that’s a story for another day. At the end of the day, all that was left of the climate control bill was the provision for better culverts. The legislative process is a beautiful thing – sometimes.
Forgive me for making fun of this, because, as an avid angler, I do get angry when I see poorly installed culverts. Road workers just do not understand the impact of their poor work. Perhaps they just aren’t anglers.
The Maine Department of Transportation actually has an excellent manual that outlines the correct installation of culverts for its workers, and municipalities are supposed to use these best practices at the local level. But hey, who is looking?
Just a few crazy anglers, that’s all. And we haven’t been very effective in speaking up in the name of correct culverts.
Thousands of road culverts are too small, poorly installed, or not maintained, eliminating critical upstream passage for fish and aquatic organisms seeking food, spawning grounds, or cooler water. In the Lower Penobscot River alone, a recent survey found that 91 percent of the 533 crossings present passage problems for fish. And 54 percent of the problems were severe.
Better late than never, LD 1333 amends the Natural Resources Protection Act to limit exemptions to the current law’s requirement that natural stream flow be maintained for upstream and downstream passage when culverts or crossings are repaired or replaced. The bill also requires the Department of Environmental Protection to tighten up its abbreviated “permit by rule” process to require municipalities to meet the same stream flow requirement when replacing or repairing culverts and crossings.
It will take decades to repair not just the culverts, but also the damage we’ve done to native fisheries and aquatic resources. But doing it the right way, from here on, will save money in the future and assure a sustainable native fishery for generations to come.
Of course, the legislature just tiptoed into the stream this session. They required the DEP to bring their new rules back to the legislature for approval in 2010. Those rules won’t take effect until approved by the legislature next year.