Removing dams and improving road crossings that block the flow of fish through a waterway usually requires a significant flow of another sort: funding.
So, when the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law began sending an additional $200 million over five years to help address the problem of fish passage, experts took note. A spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is channeling the funds to projects through an annual grant-making process, called the funding a “once-in-a-generation investment” in streams and communities.
One mega-project in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is receiving more than $1 million through the program to reconnect nearly 200 miles of stream habitat for brook trout in the headwaters of the Potomac River. The project removes 17 barriers in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, including dams and poorly designed culverts (pipes or tunnels that carry water under roads and railways).
Another $455 million over five years from the same infrastructure law is aimed at restoring ecosystems and addressing climate change and could be funneled toward projects benefiting migratory fish.
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also set to provide millions of dollars annually over five years to projects that remove barriers to fish, some of them focused on migratory species important to tribal communities.
Plus, regional, state, city and transportation budgets often set aside funds that can bolster such projects.
Beyond the biggest projects, fish passage experts say the work has seen slow but steady progress over recent decades. Many of the large dams that had been blocking the mainstems of rivers have been removed, and the work of removing other barriers is extending farther up tributaries.
Since its inception in 1987, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s fish passage workgroup has seen more than 2,000 miles of streams and rivers opened by fish passage projects and dam removals in the Bay watershed. That exceeded a goal in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement of opening 1,300 stream miles to fish passage by 2025. So, in 2020, the Bay Program set a new target to open an additional 132 miles every two years.
The Bay Program is tracking progress on 31 outcomes for a healthier watershed, “and fish passage has been one of the most successful,” said Katlyn Fuentes of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, who staffs the Bay Program workgroup.
Progress has slowed since 2019, as most of the large dams have been removed, leaving a variety of smaller projects to be tackled.
“Now, we’re dealing with projects that are still important for any given stream and for the target fish for that small watershed. But it’s not opening up the big number of stream miles we could gain in the first 20 years of doing all this,” said Alan Weaver, fish passage coordinator for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, who’s been on the workgroup since 1993.
The low-hanging fruit of fish passage projects has largely been picked, Weaver said. That is good news, but it also makes it harder to decide which factors to prioritize for the next batch of projects.
Should projects that open an entire stream come first? Or should funds focus on the first set of barriers blocking key migratory fish from returning to the areas where they once spawned? Or maybe projects should just take place when states or localities decide a stream crossing is due for an upgrade for other reasons, and fish passage can be improved in the process?
“Back then, we just had paper lists of project plans each state had. We were going down the list and checking things off,” Weaver said.
Much of the progress on removing more large dams in the Bay region has been slowed by private ownership and by concerns that the process could release excess sediment pollution. Also, new funding has placed an increased emphasis on culvert replacements and removals instead.
“Within the last 10 years, the culvert issues for fish passage have been in the spotlight,” said Jessie Thomas-Blate, associate director of river restoration at the national nonprofit American Rivers, which historically focused on dam removals.
The design of many culverts, often built as small concrete tunnels or with corrugated metal pipes, cause problems because they block the efficient flow of water. They may be too small or carry too little water for aquatic life to pass through. They also tend to collect debris and trigger backups, causing flooding upstream and, if the water eventually bursts through, erosion downstream. Improving the design of a culvert or removing it altogether can both reduce flooding impacts and help fish reach more habitat.
Now, the Chesapeake Fish Passage Prioritization Tool and the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC) help guide decision makers and funders. The fish passage workgroup has spent years tweaking the Chesapeake-based tool, which uses almost 40 different metrics to rank projects. Today, the tool helps fish passage workers prioritize the nearly 4,000 known blockages in the Bay watershed.
“The actual number is probably much higher than that,” said Jim Thompson, fish passage coordinator for Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the workgroup. “When I give presentations to students and fisheries groups, I show a map of Maryland with all the streams and major road crossings. Not every one is a blockage, but many are.”
Setting up the next iteration of fish passage projects in the region has required a good bit of counting — and a lot of painstaking work, driving around to see which culverts need immediate attention.
Lisa Moss, a fish biologist with the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, began some of that work with the help of a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust in 2016.
Before she started, “there had been no recent assessment done [of culverts] in the Lower James drainage area,” said Moss, who evaluated 320 stream crossings, adding each into regional databases and building on work from the 1980s. “It really laid the foundation for partners to go out and do more.”
One of those partners, the James River Association, helped Moss with some of her work. Seeing the great need for this type of work in the James watershed led the group to dip its toe directly into related projects.
After three years of planning, the association worked with the Virginia Department of Transportation to remove about 200 feet of a little-used road that crossed Flowerdew Hundred Creek, just south of pristine habitat in the James River National Wildlife Refuge. The project, completed in April 2022, opened about a mile of stream for river herring to use when migrating upstream to spawn in the spring.
Working with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Virginia DWR, the Richmond-based nonprofit got a taste of the complicated — and satisfying — work of improving fish passage. The partners also added native plants to the stream’s riparian corridor, stabilized the banks and planted freshwater mussels nearby, “because we saw them there in the process of removing the culvert,” said Erin Reilly, the group’s staff scientist.
“Herring show up between March and April, sometimes May, depending on water temperatures and flow,” she said. “We’ll be looking for them.”
The Flowerdew project inspired Moss to look for similar opportunities. Moss had already worked with the Piedmont Environmental Council — a leader on culvert removals in headwater streams that host trout — on projects that involved working closely with VDOT. But this one, in particular, “took some detours.” What was originally envisioned as a culvert replacement became a road removal once it became clear that the road was barely being used.
“It got me thinking, ‘How many roads are out there that nobody’s using?’” she said. When that’s the case, removing the crossing entirely “is the best possible fish outcome.”
Moss said she is hopeful that the more that groups can partner with transportation authorities, the more likely those agencies are to internalize fish passage priorities.
Technically, in Virginia law, the owner of a barrier to fish migration is responsible for providing fish passage, Weaver said, but “it doesn’t have any teeth.” If a road that crosses a stream needs to be repaired in an emergency, fish passage isn’t always a priority.
Each of the Bay states is at a different stage of quantifying and removing the thousands of remaining blockages in their waterways. Pennsylvania is known as a leader on dam removals, in particular, because of a streamlined permit program that makes dealing with faulty dams easier for owners. The state also has more than 9,900 assessments on stream barriers completed in the NAACC system, Moss said, compared with about 2,800 in Virginia and 3,000 in Maryland.
For reference, New York has more than 32,000 assessments, reflecting decades of fish passage progress in the Northeast.
These days, Moss spends much of her time training others across the Bay region to conduct the assessments she’s done for the Lower James. As she meets with river groups and transportation officials, she’s encouraged.
“We still have work to do to bring everybody on board,” she said, “but at least we’re at the table.”