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Improving road-stream crossings for people and wildlife in wake of devastating storms

Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy had severe impacts across the Northeast, underscoring the need for a strategic approach to shore up road-stream crossings in anticipation of future floods, and to increase passage of fish and wildlife.
Improving road-stream crossings for people and wildlife in wake of devastating storms

Erika Edgley, TNC

For nearly a century, 1927 served as the benchmark for severe storms in Vermont thanks to a devastating flood that wreaked havoc across the state that year. Now the benchmark is 2011.

During Tropical Storm Irene, many areas in Vermont experienced flood levels not seen for nearly a hundred years. According to climate change predictions, it won’t be as long before it happens again.

From flooding to erosion to washed-out roads, Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy had widespread impacts across the Northeast, bringing attention to the growing threat climate change poses to resources and infrastructure.  

Most of those same road-stream crossings in the northeast -- culverts under roads and are vulnerable to floods -- have greatly limited the upstream and downstream passage of fish and wildlife.

In response to these events and needs, federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, and funding from both the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program is supporting a pair of projects to help address these threats at the regional scale. Restoring Aquatic Connectivity and Increasing Flood Resilience brings together partners and users from the conservation, transportation, and state and municipal planning sectors to assess existing road-stream crossings and set priorities for restoring connectivity across the region.

The LCC Project team, led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy has created a network of people and organizations in the North Atlantic region collaborating in the assessment of road-stream crossings and working to restore aquatic connectivity, The North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative

This team is developing protocols and scoring systems used to evaluate stream crossings, creating an online database to compile data from field assessments of road-stream crossings, and identifying high priority watersheds for focusing future assessments. Using Hurricane Sandy Resiliency funds, Fish and Wildlife Service Staff and state fish and wildlife agency staff will conduct prioritized field surveys across the region over the next two years, develop predictions of the impacts of future floods and provide training on the information and tools to federal, state and local partners. The resulting information will help prioritize where to upgrade or replace culverts to improve both passage and resilience.

For state and municipal partners, the work will benefit both human and natural communities by improving road safety and fish passage. The resulting maps, condition assessments, future flood predictions, risk assessments, and prioritizations will enable states and towns to manage future intense storms, and improve conditions for aquatic organisms.

The project will also have immediate applicability for informing strategic conservation plans. For example, in the Connecticut River Watershed Pilot Landscape Conservation Design project, connectivity is an important factor in determining the ecological value of a stream or river as habitat for key species. The aquatic connectivity project will help refine the landscape design for the Connecticut River watershed by replacing modeled values with surveyed data, and using the refined scoring system to determine where connectivity should happen first.

The North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative project team will produce a final report for the LCC project and a web-based database by summer 2015 and the complementary Hurricane Sandy project will complete surveys, database, flood predictions, training and prioritizations by fall, 2016.

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