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In the late 1920s, the U.S. government began allocating funds for road construction in U.S. national forests. This led to hundreds of thousands of culverts being built and installed across the country for the purpose of moving water quickly and efficiently underneath the roadways to prevent flooding, minimize erosion, and provide pathways for stormwater.
However, culverts have had an unintended and significant consequence: they block the migration routes of some fish and aquatic organisms.
Culverts that are undersized, improperly placed, or designed with smooth featureless surfaces can impede or totally block fish and aquatic species from passing. Culverts with extremely high velocity flows make it incredibly difficult for aquatic organisms to navigate upstream, and extremely low velocity flows make it hard for fish to pass in either direction. The high-velocity flows can erode the stream channel immediately downstream of the culvert, which can leave the culvert pipe perched. This elevation above the water channel makes it impossible for organisms to pass through. Debris can also collect in the culvert, not only blocking fish passage, but water as well.
In addition to blocking the upstream passage of fish and other aquatic species, some culverts disrupt the normal stream movements of some macroinvertebrates, which are key components of these stream ecosystems, an important food source to countless species, and play a critical role in the cycling of energy and nutrients throughout stream ecosystems. Disruptions to the movement and dispersal of stream macroinvertebrates can reduce available habitat, lead to genetic isolation of some populations, and cause extirpation of critical species. When populations splinter, it causes a reduction in genetic diversity, which can lead to the spread of more invasive species and many other ecological issues.
While culverts serve an important function in road construction and flood prevention, their impact on aquatic organisms must be taken into consideration. Finding solutions that both allow for efficient water flow and enable safe aquatic migration is crucial in preserving the health of our waterways and their ecosystems.
A shift in the 1980s recognized the importance of redesigning road-stream crossings for several reasons, including restoring aquatic organism passage and maintaining flood resilience. Between 2008 and 2015, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) partnered with more than 200 organizations in the Legacy Roads and Trails Program to replace 1,000+ culverts across the country. The aim of the program was to upgrade culverts to emulate natural streams and to allow fish and wildlife to pass more naturally both upstream and downstream.
Replacing culverts with structures that better facilitate the movement of both water and aquatic organisms has benefits beyond restoring critical ecosystems and improving biodiversity. Ecological restoration creates jobs, stimulates outdoor recreation and local economic activity, and generates long-term economic value.
Princeton Hydro has a strong history in designing connectivity-friendly road-stream crossings and restoring/replacing outdated culverts. Our team of engineers and scientists has been directly involved with hundreds of stream and ecosystem restoration projects throughout the Northeast.
For several years, Princeton Hydro has partnered with NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program (HEP) to plan and design for aquatic connectivity through climate-ready infrastructure. Created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) at the request of the governors of New York and New Jersey, HEP develops and implements plans that protect, conserve and restore the estuary, and aquatic connectivity is a key focus area for HEP and its partners.
Most recently, HEP partnered with Princeton Hydro to address hydraulic capacity issues at priority road-stream crossings in New Jersey’s South River and Lower Raritan River watersheds. The Princeton Hydro team developed a 30% engineering plan for a priority road-stream crossing – the Birch Street crossing over the Iresick Brook in Old Bridge, NJ.
Iresick Brook is upstream from Duhernal Lake, located at the end of the free-flowing South River, which feeds into the Raritan River, and ultimately flows into Raritan Bay. Duhernal Lake is dammed at the outlet so there is little to no connectivity downstream from the Iresick Brook sub-watershed. The watershed is highly dendritic (meaning the drainage pattern follows a tree-like shape) with many small streams running through it, some of them ephemeral.
The Iresick Brook 5 (IB5) culvert, located in Old Bridge Township, New Jersey, is an undersized double culvert in poor condition with an eroding streambank. This culvert was chosen as a restoration priority primarily due its inadequate sizing (both pipes are only 3-feet in diameter). The outdated infrastructure blocks the passage of fish and other aquatic organisms, and it can only accommodate a 50-year storm event.
Once the IB5 culvert was identified as the priority site, Princeton Hydro completed a site investigation, which included a geomorphic assessment, site observations, and simplified site survey of the channel alignment, profile, and cross sections both upstream and downstream of the culvert.
At the time of the survey, flow was only a couple inches deep in the channel and incredibly slow-moving, especially in the upstream reach. Despite the low flow at the time of the survey, during storm events, the stream experiences extremely high velocities. The undersized culvert creates hydraulic constriction and subsequently a velocity barrier that prevents passage. Additionally, when the high-flow stream water is forced through the small pipes, it creates a firehose effect, which has led to the formation of a 60-foot-long scour hole at the culvert outlet. Substrate from the scour hole has been washed downstream, forming an island of large sand and small gravel.
Approximately 155 feet upstream of the culvert is a channel-spanning v-notch weir comprised of a combination of sheet pile and timber. The weir appears to be a historical stream gauge that is highly degraded and creates an artificially perched channel. The upstream channel also contains woody debris, which gets caught at the culvert, blocking water flow and organism passage.
For the design process, Princeton Hydro used the USFS Stream Simulation Design, an gold-standard ecosystem-based approach for designing and constructing road-stream crossings that provide unimpeded fish and other aquatic organism passage through the structure. The Stream Simulation, a required standard on USFS road projects, integrates fluvial geomorphology concepts and methods with engineering principles to design a road-stream crossing that contains a natural and dynamic channel through the structure so that fish and other aquatic organisms will experience no greater difficulty moving through the structure than if the crossing did not exist.
The design also incorporated utility constraints (gas line, sewer line, drinking water main, and stormwater outlet), a longitudinal profile assessment, channel capacity and slope analysis, and a simplified hydrologic & hydraulic assessment.
Ultimately, Princeton Hydro recommended that HEP replace the existing culvert with a Contech Precast O-321 culvert, or similar alternative. The proposed design increases the culvert opening area and allows for significant increases in flow capacity. This culvert replacement project has the potential to reduce local flood risk and restore aquatic organism passage to the reach of Iresick Brook.
To get a more detailed look at the IB5 culvert project and learn more about HEP and its partnership with Princeton Hydro, click below for a full presentation from Isabelle Stinnette of HEP and Jake Dittes, PE of Princeton Hydro:
Aquatic connectivity is crucial for improving healthy aquatic ecosystems and managing severe storms and flooding. Increases in rainfall due to climate change makes investing in these improvements even more of a growing priority. With so many culverts in place, it can be difficult to know which culvert restoration projects to prioritize.
We worked with HEP to create a toolkit for addressing problematic road-stream crossings. The easy-to-use matrix helps to prioritize potential projects and identify solutions for problem culverts and relative cost solutions.
The toolkit was just recently released to the public with the hope that it will be used as a template to promote the development of more resilient and environmentally-friendly infrastructure.
Click here to get more info and download.
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