All The Fish

Alaska project to open 70 miles of salmon habitat

Little Tonsina bridge nation’s first Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-funded fish passage project to break ground

Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Alaska’s rivers are no exception. One day they’re a trickle, the next a torrent. Rivers carve up landscapes and jump their banks. They are collectors of rain, last winter’s snow, and ancient waters from glaciers warmed by the sun. They muscle boulders, fallen trees, and heavy loads of silt toward the sea. And when they encounter culverts that don’t respect change, they blow right through and take roads with them too.

A road-stream crossing failing during high flows is a violent, forceful event. The culvert becomes a firehose and eventually clogs with debris the river plucked from its banks and floodplain. With nowhere to go, water overtops and saturates the road until the pressure mangles the corrugated metal and carries the road and everything therein downstream in a whoosh of turbid, angry water.

In 2006, this happened on the Little Tonsina River when it reached flood stage and overwhelmed an access road in Alaska’s Valdez-Cordova Borough — homelands to Ahtna people and an area that Sugpiaq and rural Alaskans depend on for access to hunting and fishing, wild food security, and cultural ties to the land. It’s also one of the major regional access points for the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

a round culvert sitting in a stream
One of the undersized culverts that was carried downstream during a 2006 flood event on the Little Tonsina River in Alaska 📷 Alaska Department of Transportation/Jacob Mills

The ruined culverts that carried the Little Tonsina through the road prior to 2006 still rest downstream in its riverbed today. Following the catastrophic road failure, an “emergency fix” of similar, undersized design was quickly applied where river met road as a necessary, short-term patch job to maintain crucial resource access. However, if we consider this temporary fix to be a permanent solution, those failed, rusty relics offer a preview of inevitable things to come.

The River

Fast forward to 2022 and you can get a sense for this river’s true potential while looking beyond the current undersized double culverts — gravelly, clean, and cold; perfect conditions for Coho and Chinook salmon. If you were to follow it downstream, you’d hit the Tonsina River proper — a class III-IV whitewater with excellent fishing for Pacific salmon, Dolly Varden, and Arctic Grayling. These waters eventually meet Alaska’s Copper River, home to what many people consider one of the world’s finest sources of Sockeye and King Salmon.

a river surrounded by fall leaves with a mountain downstream
View of Alaska’s Little Tonsina River from a road to be fitted with a bridge. Note the old culvert downstream. 📷 USFWS

Standing on the road and looking upstream, the water is pooled, a common symptom of a fish passage barrier created by an undersized road-stream crossing and the associated disruption of natural flow. Over 70 miles of glacier-fed salmon nursery habitats extends upstream to the horizon.

Breaking ground

Prior to 2022, the prospect of fitting the road with a bridge to accommodate the Little Tonsina and its varied flows was already attracting attention and funding from multiple state and federal partners — if the past is a preview of the future, the same culvert design is not expected to survive another 50-year flood event.

It takes many hands to build a bridge. The Chugach Alaska Corporation entered into a land transfer and right of way agreement that ultimately makes this work possible. Herculean partner funding efforts have raised several million dollars, including $1 million from Alaska Department of Transportation and $1.3 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding. The non-profit partner Copper River Watershed Project has kept communication going between partners and shepherded this project to construction phases. This collaboration and additional financial and technical support from many partners, will finally let the Little Tonsina flow free as it should and provide a reliable ribbon of access for hunters, anglers, and infrastructure maintenance in a sparsely-roaded area.

The two lane, 100-foot floodplain-friendly bridge to be installed in 2023 is designed for a 100-year flood and employs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s comprehensive Alaska design guidelines for building road-stream crossings that have fish and flood resiliency in mind.

Initial groundbreaking activities in 2022 include clearing and grubbing, creating access lanes, building the platforms that will be the bridge embankments, and installing rootwads upstream for bank stability and fish habitat.

construction vehicles preparing a road
Ground breaking in August 2022. 📷 ADOT/Jacob Mills

The existing undersized culverts will act as coffer dams so in-channel construction (including in the riverbed and its banks) can take place “in the dry” — a plus for equipment operation — and water quality issues associated with construction can be minimized.

excavator by a stream with water control bags in place
📷 ADOT/Jacob Mills

And what of the old culverts downstream? They will be plucked out fall of 2022 by the Alaska-based contractor, a woman-owned small business.

For Fish, First and Foremost

As climate change continues to disproportionately impact northern locales like Alaska, it’s ever important to provide salmon unimpeded access to all habitat options. Culverts and bridges designed with flows and fish in mind do this, keeping salmon runs resilient, fisheries stable, and roads reliable for local communities and economies.

The Little Tonsina has the distinct honor of being the first Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-funded fish passage project to break ground in the USA. The project is one of 40 across the country that received funding in 2022 as part of the five-year $200 million commitment to removing in-stream barriers and providing technical assistance under the National Fish Passage Program. However, it follows on the coattails of millions of dollars already invested in fish-friendly roads across Alaska with more to come, including two additional Bipartisan Infrastructure Law-funded projects in Tyonek and Gustavus that were previously financially unattainable. Good work also tends to catalyze funding and momentum to address additional barriers and unstable infrastructure at a watershed level or nearby tributaries.

Conservation is a team sport. In addition to our dedicated Copper River Watershed staff biologist, Fish Passage Engineer, and Engineer Tech, project partners include Chugach Alaska Corporation, the State of Alaska, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resource Conservation Service, NOAA Fisheries, Copper River Watershed Project, and The Denali Commission.

With increased flood intensities forecasted, our team of habitat restoration practitioners in the Southern Alaska Fish and Wildlife Field Office is committed to supporting ongoing fish passage efforts and fish-friendly infrastructure to keep fisheries healthy and communities connected in Alaska’s changing environment. Thanks to fish-friendly road standards being adopted at local level and major investments in fish passage statewide, a barrier-free Alaska is within reach.

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. Please contact Anna Senecal for more information on this particular project.

Read more:

Alaskan Women Engineer Passage for Salmon

The Tug of Pacific Salmon

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