A year of clearing the way for communities and wildlife
Rick Malasky knows definitive statements are risky. “Never say never,” said the Newmarket, New Hampshire, public works director. “But I don’t think Bay Road will flood again in my lifetime.”
That’s saying something, considering the coastal roadway required major repairs after flooding in 2006 and has been washed out three times since.
The Town of Newmarket is just one beneficiary of funding and expertise from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to improve fish passage and public safety in the Northeast.
From October 2018 to September 2019, we worked with partners to complete 58 projects that removed barriers or restrictions on waterways, reconnecting more than 1,500 upstream miles of rivers and streams and nearly 260 acres of wetlands.
In addition, our Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program assisted six states in improving both aquatic and terrestrial connectivity for fish and wildlife through State Wildlife Grant projects. Work ranged from dam removal, to fish-passage design, to state Department of Transportation projects.
Removing obsolete dams and installing right-sized road culverts lets rivers and streams flow freely. Without barriers, migratory fish — like alewife, blueback herring, American shad, and American eel — can reach historical spawning and rearing grounds once more. And resident fish like Eastern brook trout can find refuge in cooler headwaters.
Water that once sat stagnant moves downstream, staying cooler, taking up oxygen, and carrying sediment to the coast to build up salt marsh and beach habitat. Healthy beaches and coastal marshes buffer wind, storm surge, and sea-level rise, protecting people and property.
Road and neighborhood flooding during severe storms — increasingly frequent — is less likely. Paddlers and anglers enjoy increased river access.
“We’re proud to work with our partners to restore the natural flow of rivers,” said the Service’s Regional Director Wendi Weber. “Free-flowing rivers create healthier coastal habitats for migratory fish and other wildlife and enhance recreational opportunities and public safety for nearby communities. What’s good for nature is good for people, too.”
In the last decade, we’ve removed more than 660 barriers to fish passage in the Northeast, restoring access to nearly 6,500 miles of river and stream habitat and more than 28,000 acres of lakes, ponds, and wetlands.
To achieve success at this scale, we rely on contributions of funding and expertise from a wide range of partners, including other federal agencies; state wildlife and environmental management agencies; local, regional, and national conservation organizations; and local governments.
Three recently completed projects illustrate the scope and benefits of our fish passage work:
Making way for migratory fish, motorists, and marsh
The culvert beneath Bay Road in Newmarket, New Hampshire, was a problem for fish and people alike. Too small and “perched” above the level of Lubberland Creek, it prevented migratory fish from traveling upstream. During storms, it backed up, flooding the roadway, which serves as an emergency evacuation route.
Our National Fish Passage Program worked with the Town of Newmarket, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Service’s Coastal Program and Aquatic Resource Mitigation Fund, and The Nature Conservancy to replace the outdated structure with an open-bottomed box culvert four times as wide.
Young American eels, which could be spotted by the tens-of-thousands stuck below the old structure, now can swim unimpeded from Great Bay to their rearing habitats upstream, where they will mature. River herring and American shad, which used to spawn in the creek, may return one day. Rising tides can pass through the culvert without backing up and flooding the road.
But fish and people aren’t the only ones on the move. With rising sea levels, Lubberland Creek salt marsh — one of the largest in Great Bay — needs to relocate. Salt marshes are critical during storms, as they buffer waves and absorb storm surge. The new culvert will allow the salt marsh to move under the road and establish itself in suitable habitat on the other side, as it creeps toward The Nature Conservancy’s Lubberland Creek Preserve.
“The Preserve includes some of the most pristine habitats in New Hampshire’s lower coastal watershed,” said Pete Steckler, the Conservancy’s GIS and conservation project manager in New Hampshire. “For the salt marsh to survive, it will need to migrate inland toward, and eventually into, the Preserve. Fortunately, it has some place to go — and now a way to get there.”
Dam removed, and shad return
Columbia Dam in New Jersey was built in the early 1900s to produce ice and electricity for two nearby towns. More than a century later, neither is needed, and the dam stood in the way of migratory fish and clean water.
We worked with partners to remove the derelict dam and reconnect more than 10 miles of the Paulins Kill River — and twice that distance in tributary streams — to the Delaware River. At a cost of more than $7 million, it is the largest and most expensive dam removal project in New Jersey history.
The project included taking out a remnant dam downstream from the Columbia, creating in-stream rock weirs to help migratory fish pass, restoring nearly 50 acres of forested wetland and floodplain habitat, and building a public boat launch and recreational trails.
Our National Fish Passage and Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration programs helped fund the project, and our fish passage engineers helped design the rock-weir fishway.
Gratification was nearly instant. An angler caught — and released — an American shad almost 10 miles upstream not long after project completion. It was the first time in more than a century that one had been found that far up the river. State fisheries biologists later confirmed that shad had passed the former dam site.
The project is part of a larger effort, led by The Nature Conservancy, to improve water quality and aquatic habitat in the Paulins Kill.
“Removal of the Columbia Dam opened 20 miles of river and tributaries to migratory fish and improved habitat for resident aquatic life,” said Beth Styler Barry, the Conservancy’s river restoration manager in New Jersey. “We were thrilled to see shad return just a few weeks after the dam was removed, and we’ll continue to monitor ecosystem changes in the upcoming years.”
The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife will also study fish and other aquatic organisms, water quality, aquatic habitat, and recreational use of the river for the next three-to-four years to track changes.
Primary partners in the Columbia Dam removal include The Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, American Rivers, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation-Delaware River Program, and Princeton Hydro.
Better off without Bloede
When it was built on the Patapsco River in 1907, Bloede Dam in Maryland was state of the art, with a hydroelectric plant under its spillway. After producing energy for fewer than two decades, however, it sat idle for nearly a century — a barrier to fish, paddlers, and public safety.
Over the years, a number of people drowned at the dam, which is within Patapsco Valley State Park. A sewer pipe carrying millions of gallons of raw sewage ran through part of the unmaintained structure — a potential environmental disaster were the dam to let go.
The dam was the first barrier to fish passage on the Patapsco, which flows to Chesapeake Bay. Its removal restored nine mainstem miles of spawning habitat for river herring and shad, 54 tributary miles, and more than 180 miles of rearing habitat for eels. A free-flowing Patapsco offers new opportunities for fishing, paddling, and other outdoor recreation.
The $18-million project removed the safety risk at the dam. In addition, the sewer pipe, which was moved outside of the floodplain, is no longer in danger of failing during flood events.
Less than three months after completion, biologists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found juvenile striped bass using habitat upstream of the former dam location.
“We couldn’t be happier with how the project turned out,” said Jim Thompson, fish passage coordinator for the state agency. “It was an awesome collaboration between so many of our partners, and the benefits are already being realized by migratory fish and other aquatic organisms. We hope to carry this momentum to other obsolete dam removal projects in Maryland.”
We contributed more than $1.5-million from the Hurricane Sandy Resilience Program, the National Fish Passage Program, and other programs to the project. Partners included American Rivers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Friends of the Patapsco Valley State Park.
The Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Maryland Biological Stream Survey, Maryland Geological Survey, and University of Maryland Baltimore County will monitor the response of the river and its wildlife in coming years.
Back in Newmarket, Rick Malasky has noticed a distinct change in tone in the email messages he’s receiving from residents.
“During the project, there was a four-mile detour, and people were frustrated,” he said. “But now that the work’s done, there’s nothing but praise for the improvements. We’re really happy with the outcome.”
So, no doubt, are the eels.