Funding Awarded to Replace Culverts, Assist Fish Passage

Water flows freely in its natural state under a bridge at Rock Creek that replaced a culvert in 2019. Photos provided by Shannon Richardson

Five Oregon watershed councils that make up the Mid-Valley River Connections collaborative – which include the Calapooia and South Santiam councils – are expected to receive a total of more than $8.7 million in funding to help restore fish passage in the Mid-Willamette region.

Funded by the Department of Commerce and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the money will be used at 18 different sites in the region to open up access to 43 miles of quality spawning and rearing habitat for a variety of native fish, including Upper Willamette River spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead trout, which are both listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Shannon Richardson, executive director for the South Santiam Watershed Council, explained how the funding will be used for the two more localized area watershed projects.

A culvert on Rock Creek makes upstream migration difficult and downstream migration risky due to its situation with the water surface.

The South Santiam Watershed Council was awarded $827,733 for four culvert replacements in forested upper basin tributaries. Two of the culverts will be replaced with appropriately sized open-bottom culverts, while the remaining two culverts will be replaced with bridges. The replacements are expected to allow for improved stream function and passage both for resident fish species and for federally listed Upper Willamette Chinook and steelhead.

The Calapooia Watershed Council was awarded $1.97 million for four culvert replacements on three tributaries to the mainstem Willamette River. According to Richardson, all of these project locations are key restoration opportunities in Anchor Habitat areas of the Willamette. Together, the Calapooia projects will open up 5.7 miles of fish habitat for federally listed Upper Willamette Chinook and steelhead and other native fishes, restore stream function in key locations, ensure safe public access, and provide a living classroom for the Calapooia Watershed Council’s outdoor education programming.

“Historically, culverts were often used instead of bridges to convey water under roadbeds where a road needed to cross a creek or stream,” Richardson said. “Early thinking about culverts emphasized water transport to protect infrastructure, but may not have considered the need for migratory fish to also use the culverts for upstream or downstream movement, or the impact of culverts on stream function.”

The councils will take all necessary factors into consideration –  the current state of the stream, stream size and velocity, fish presence and movement, human usage, costs and other factors – when determining what to replace the existing culverts with, she said.

A bridge that replaced a culvert at Rock Creek provides free-flowing water for fish.

“In some cases, changing the size, orientation or type of culvert is sufficient to allow fish passage and other uses or habitat needs,” Richardson said. “In other cases, the culvert will be replaced with a bridge. Bridges are more expensive, but have the advantage of being long-lived and allowing for stream function that is most like an unaltered stream.”

The proposed replacements in the South Santiam are largely in headwater streams or higher up on tributaries, she said.

“Actions like these that promote improved fish habitat and passage into high quality habitat are drops in a much larger bucket of recovery, but every effort helps,” she said. “Impacts to anglers are likely to be neutral in the near term and beneficial in the long term.”

“We are honored that our proposal has been recommended for funding,” said Holly Purpura, executive director for Marys River Watershed Council. “This work builds upon 16 years of close regional collaboration between the Calapooia, Luckiamute, Marys River, North Santiam and South Santiam watershed councils, whose combined service areas compose 31% of the Willamette watershed.”

The project, “There and Back Again: A Salmonid’s Tale to Restored Fish Passage in the Mid-Willamette,” was submitted by Marys River Watershed Council on behalf of the Mid-Valley River Connections collaborative.

A proper culvert such as this one is proposed as a replacement for the South Santiam basin.

In addition to restoring access to healthy fish habitat, the intention of the project is also to build climate resilience while improving infrastructure, reducing hazards and engaging the community. The projects span a full range of fish passage types, including culvert improvements, in-stream fish passage improvements, and the assessment of alternatives to and review of a dam removal. Richardson explained that particular dam references the Penitentiary Dam in the Mill Creek subbasin of the North Santiam Watershed Council.

According to a press release through NOAA, this work will also support local communities by reducing the risk of flooding and helping improve response to wildfires.

This project is one of 46 projects recommended by the Department of Commerce and NOAA for $240 million in funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. More than $480 million was awarded for 109 projects across the nation in its first round, and another $38 million in funding is being recommended in future years.

The NOAA press release states, “With this historic level of funding, our partners will reopen migratory pathways and restore access to healthy habitat for fish across the country.”