Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Restoration and Human Safety… Fish Passage Projects with Multiple Benefits

Working on private lands habitat restoration projects is a blend of science and art.  Our big picture strategies are guided as much as possible by the best scientific information in large-scale habitat assessment and resource prioritization plans.  We try to focus on strategically addressing the habitat limitations (the ‘life-history bottlenecks’) for key species like salmon across a wide variety of different land ownerships – including private and municipally owned lands. 

In several of our watersheds we have detailed assessments of road crossings (usually culverts) that are blockages to fish movements in rivers and streams.  The culverts are usually far smaller than the stream’s width, resulting in excessive velocities and scour that creates a drop, or perch, at the downstream end. We use the detailed assessments to select barriers that are ‘high priorities’ to address.  This is based on the length and quality of upstream habitat as well as on the number of at-risk or focal fish species that use the stream. But knowing where to work is just the first step.

Perched culvert in Roy Creek before restoration.

The day to day efforts are all about building relationships and partnerships.  That’s where the art comes in.  Working with a diverse array of partners and their broad range of goals means we have to find a way to achieve benefits for everyone while still being true to the intent of our conservation funding.  When you add a sluggish economy and declining budgets to this mix, it really gets interesting.  The collaborative mode is rewarding in itself, but it is also necessary when everyone has fewer resources.   The success of this work is really visible in some of our current restoration projects on Oregon’s north coast.  In addition to selecting projects that are high priorities from a natural resource standpoint, we also look to support critical infrastructure upgrades and to improve public safety.  All of the projects are beneficial to the local economy in that there are lots of jobs and materials purchased.

Seaside Heights Elementary students visit the new culvert
to learn about coastal streams.

Seaside Heights ElementaryWhen the Seaside School District learned that the culvert under the only access road to Seaside Heights Elementary School was failing and that it would cost nearly a half a million dollars to fix it, they were concerned about the welfare of their 320 students and their families who travel over the culvert daily.  The school had also been designated as a Tsunami Safe Area for the community, making safe access even more critical.  The school didn’t have cash or resources to fix the culvert, but an expedient and creative partnership between Seaside School District, USFWS, Necanicum Watershed Council, City of Seaside, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA-American Rivers, and Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board provided design, permitting, and funding to fix it. The culvert was not only a failure risk; it was a barrier blocking migrating fish from nearly a mile of spawning habitat.  Culvert failure would have dumped 10,000 cubic yards of earthen fill into the stream, damaging habitat quality in the creek and in the productive beaver marsh below – both important rearing habitats for juvenile fish.  Working together, our team of partners installed a 16’ wide by 150’ long culvert with a natural stream bottom to ensure that adult and juvenile fish could move upstream and downstream at all flows.  The school got state-of-the art infrastructure and the City of Seaside got a secure access to a Tsunami Safe Area for their residents.  The school continues to work closely with the watershed council to use the stream as an ‘outdoor’ classroom to engage their students.

Tillamook CountyAnother important partner has been Tillamook County.  We have culvert assessments and prioritizations that cover nearly the entire county.  This has allowed a broad team of partners to work together to strategically implement projects that open streams to enable fish to move into quality habitat.  Local organizations, like the Nestucca-Neskowin Watershed Council and the Tillamook Estuary Partnership, have been important leaders in gathering the data and coordinating partners.   The Tillamook County Public Works Department has been a great cooperator as well, realizing that much of the infrastructure is under their jurisdiction yet they have extremely spare budgets to address the pressing needs-- even in the case of culverts at risk of failing.  Our projects in Tillamook County have helped salmon, steelhead, trout, and lamprey access important upstream habitats.  At the same time, these projects have also helped improve the City of Tillamook’s drinking water diversion and have fixed a barrier culvert under a county road and Port of Tillamook Railroad crossing.  This coming summer we will fix at least three other important county road crossings, including one that is in imminent risk of failing, and will work on several private lands fish passage projects this summer; providing fish and stream benefits while ensuring safe access to farms and homes, and for logging and gravel trucks and other coastal dwellers to travel a safer road network. 

Achieving the MissionIn the end these projects meet many goals.  They improve fish access to miles of important habitat and improve stream dynamics by removing artificial constrictions to restore natural stream flows and reduce scour of stream habitat features such as spawning gravels.  The projects help repair failing infrastructure that poses human safety risks.  They can help provide secure drinking water resources.  They stretch limited local municipal budgets in tough economic times.  They create an efficient and seamless partnership between local, state, and federal agencies where everyone contributes an essential piece in a complex puzzle. 

Tillamook county Commissioner Mark Labhart
speaks at the Roy Creek Ribbon Cutting Celebration.
The value of this type of partnership was recognized by Senator Betsy Johnson at the ribbon cutting ceremony on the Roy Creek Fish Passage project in Tillamook County last November, “This is really a big deal.  This goes to show what we can accomplish when we work together.” Her thoughts were echoed by Lower Nehalem Watershed Council Chair George Hemmingway, who said, “This just shows what can be done when people at the local community level, stakeholders and leaders, are encouraged and aided by government agencies at all levels. Bottom up and grassroots thinking, aided by county, state and federal experts and funds. What an idea…very Oregonian.”

And, last but not least, they achieve the Fish and Wildlife Service mission, which is after all, working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

Submitted by Amy Horstman, Fish and Wildlife Habitat Restoration Program


  1. All very true and couldn't do nearly as much without the terrific assistance of the CRPO.

  2. I admire your commitment to involving the community in habitat restoration. Involvement in these issues, through doing the work as well as through education, over the past forty years has increased citizen interest and demand for measures which alleviate and mitigate action which degrade habitats. Thanks for sharing this info.

    Jim Martin