Alaskan Women Engineer Passage for Wild Salmon

breaking down barriers, making inroads for Alaska’s fish

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska
Feb 4 · 9 min read
Jess and Heather bring engineering expertise to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service design team that works to restore fish passage where roads cross Alaska’s rivers and streams 📷 USFWS Katrina Liebich

Fish gotta swim, but it’s not as easy as it used to be—even in Alaska, one of the planet’s last great strongholds for wild salmon. Compared to most other places, of course, Alaska’s salmon are doing relatively well, but they’re forced to navigate an increasing number of obstacles as more people move into the state and transportation infrastructure expands.

It’s not so much a matter of existing dams in Alaska,” says Bill Rice, a former fish passage engineer with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska who now addresses fish passage issues across the West and Great Plains. “Most of the state’s rivers are undammed. Poorly designed culverts where roads cross streams present the biggest problems.”

Particularly for juvenile salmon who can’t muscle their way upstream as well as adults returning to spawn. In Alaska, baby Chinook and Coho Salmon and resident fishes like Arctic Grayling and Rainbow Trout need to be able to find food and safe temperatures and flows throughout the seasons. Delays at roads can cost them their lives.

End of the road for these salmon. This Kodiak Island culvert was recently replaced with a fish-friendly crossing that lets adults and juveniles move freely up and downstream 🎥 USFWS/Franklin Dekker (gif)

Staff in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat Branch take this issue seriously—and Heather Hanson and Jessica Straub are using their engineering skills to help clear the way for Alaska’s precious salmon runs.

Heather Hanson, a PE and Fish Passage Engineer, is based out of USFWS’s Anchorage Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Heather came to Alaska after earning an engineering degree from the University of Idaho and working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on dam fish passage structures in the Pacific Northwest.

Jess Straub, Fish Passage Engineering Technician 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Jess grew up in New Hampshire, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Resource Engineering from the SUNY College of Environmental Engineering and Forestry at Syracuse, New York, and moved to Alaska after a stint in the Lower 48 working on water conservation projects.

Together, they design some of the most sophisticated and successful road-stream crossings on the planet—ones with both fish and floods in mind.

Channel-spanning culverts let fish and floods pass freely 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
Heather surveys a fish passage barrier with teammate/hydrologist Franklin Dekker where a road crosses an Anchorage salmon stream 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Our habitat team has put in a lot of fish-friendly culverts in the four years that I’ve been doing this job,” says Heather, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current fish passage engineer in Alaska. “We’ve completed about 20 in Kodiak, six or seven in Kenai, six in the Matanuska-Susitna area, and one near Cordova. And we have a lot more planned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to doing everything possible to improve prospects for salmon.

Jessica—known widely as Jess—has been working for Heather since August, 2019, and enjoys the fact that her job requires both intellectual rigor and vigorous physical effort.

📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

“It’s a balance between the office and field work,” she says. “We design projects in the winter and mud season, and then construct and install the fish-friendly road-stream crossings during the summer. For me, the most challenging part is prolonged computer work. You’re at your desk for hours working with CAD programs on topo maps, stream cross-sections and project designs, it’s dark outside, and you kind of go into a black hole—you lose all sense of time.

And the most rewarding part?

Just the fact that you see a project come together from start to finish, and that it has an incredible payoff,” Jess says.

On one project, we were able to install a culvert and restore stream flow at a tributary to Lake Orbin that contained a lot of juvenile Coho Salmon. We had a very hot summer and the juvenile salmon were suffocating, stressed out by a lack of oxygen and hot temperatures in the Lake. Once we established flow, you could literally see their relief—they just barreled up through the culvert and into the cool groundwater fed stream. That was tremendously satisfying.

A new fish-friendly culvert in Kodiak helps baby salmon escape the heat.

Fish passage science and engineering have been around for a few decades, but the process has been greatly refined over the past few years. Thirty years ago, says Heather, the basic goal was to simply put in culverts that allowed a significant percentage of a stream’s flow to pass under roadways more or less unimpeded. The rest was left up to the fish, and results were mixed.

Old (left) vs new culvert designs 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

These days, the agency’s general goal is on returning streams to as natural a condition as possible, and our passage designs reflect that,” says Heather. “And while our primary focus is on salmon, we’re also taking into account all the other fish and wildlife that inhabit any given project site. In addition to fish, mammals—moose, lynx, otters etc.—can also use them as safety corridors to avoid crossing roads.

That means “not thinking in straight lines” and minimal emphasis on steel and concrete, Heather says. Rock banks are incorporated directly into culverts to provide the edges and niches young salmon need for resting, feeding and hiding from predators. Rock substrates can also be used to create low-flow channels in the bottom of the culverts to ensure the fish always have enough water for passage.

Heather and Jess walk the road over a small stream in Mat-Su, Alaska 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Also, bigger usually is best when it comes to culverts.

We generally take out smaller culverts and replace them with large, embedded ones,” says Jess. “Smaller culverts disrupt the ability of a stream to transport sediment or build a floodplain. So our culverts can range from six to 35 feet in diameter. We want them to be at least as wide as the stream we’re working on.

Alaska’s salmon are facing multiple obstacles involving everything from climate change to heavy resource demands. These challenges may sometimes seem daunting, but the successes posted by fish passage engineers such as Heather and Jess demonstrate there’s also real reason for optimism.

In terms of addressing and keeping habitat connected for fish, I personally think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to resolving the most critical fish barriers over the next 10–20 years,” says Bill Rice. “And I think Heather and Jess are going to make big contributions toward that end.”

A fish-friendly culvert full of animal tracks spans frozen Crooked Creek in Fairbanks in December 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Nerd out/read more:

Adapted from Alaska Business Monthly’s Transportation Issue: Rocky Road (culvert woes, not the ice cream)

When did you start working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Jess: August, 2019

What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?

Jess: The number of different shoes I wear. It’s everything from waders to mukluks. Also, the diversity and the extreme beauty of our field sites.

How do Alaska’s wild places inspire you?

Jess: It’s just the majesty and beauty of the landscapes. It’s overwhelming, really, and it allows me to be my best possible self.

What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s fish and wildlife?

Jess: The extremely warm temperatures we’re seeing and the droughts we’ve witnessed over the past several years. I’m deeply worried about the impacts, particularly on riparian environments.

When I’m not working, I’m….

Jess: I’m probably outside with my dog, Kai. He’s a big old mountaineering mutt.

What’s the greatest misconception people have about Alaska?

Jess: When I came up here, I thought things would be colder. I had just come from Syracuse, and often it’s a lot colder there. Temperatures are becoming milder up here, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

What’s your most treasured memory of Alaska?

Jess: Seeing the northern lights for the first time. I was outside of Fairbanks in 2016, and they just drew my soul in.

What advice would you give someone interested in a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

Jess: Apply for every job that comes up. Every one. And sign up for the volunteer programs, and get to know people.

What wildlife species particularly moves you?

Jess: I’m moved by all of Alaska’s wildlife, but for me green sea turtles are my favorite wild species. My dad is a diving fanatic and I was certified for SCUBA at 12. We went to the Bay Islands near Honduras, and I got to see turtles up close. They just fascinated me — they still do.

Interview by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter. Compiled and edited by USFWS/Katrina Liebich

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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