Stepping onto the uneven concrete that spans an otherwise untouched stretch of the Robinson River, Celia Vuocolo waved her arms as if presenting a piece of art rather than an artifact of short-sighted thinking.
“This is like the poster child for a bad culvert,” she said. “Everything you can do wrong has happened here.”
When Vuocolo, a habitat stewardship specialist with the Piedmont Environmental Council, first started looking for stream crossings worthy of replacement in the headwaters of Virginia’s Rappahannock River — home to much of the state’s remaining native brook trout — this one stood out.
Not far from where the stream leaves Shenandoah National Park and enters private property, the rough pavement that’s thick enough to act like a dam was probably poured decades ago when an owner wanted to access a shed that no longer exists on the far bank. To keep the water flowing, the bridge’s builders placed a large metal pipe in the stream, surrounded it with rocks and layered gravelly concrete haphazardly over the top to form a crude crossing. Now, this defunct span will finally be removed, making it easier for brook trout and other species like American eel to move freely.
Makeshift stream crossings are not uncommon in these parts. While they may have served the landowners’ needs, they’ve proven a hindrance to fish movement, spawning and even survival.
“Most of these were put in in the early 1900s,” said Peter Hujik, the environmental council’s land conservation officer for Virginia’s Madison and Orange counties. “A lot of these people are going to have to replace or address culvert issues in the near future because they are so old. That makes our initiative timely.”
Though the nonprofit typically focuses on preserving land from development in the nine-county region of north-central Virginia, the council has recently dipped its toe into stream restoration. Working with a handful of government and nonprofit agencies and willing private landowners, they will remove a pair of stream crossings that restrict, if not prevent, fish trying to pass through these cool, wooded waters.
The native brook trout that these projects will primarily benefit are a powerful and picky species, after all. Their preference for cold, clean water makes streams in many developed areas uninhabitable and makes their presence an indication of water quality worth protecting.
Studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and surveys by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries indicate that most adult brook trout can’t swim through a metal culvert when it’s elevated above the stream bottom and too narrow, compared with the stream’s width. Water tends to gush through these narrow openings in wet weather, changing the way these cobble-bottomed streams function for fish and effectively trapping some brook trout between impassable stream crossings.
If the weather gets hotter, as it did this summer, that means some fish can’t escape upstream to cooler waters. It’s another challenge for a species that has, since the mid-1970s, struggled to survive warming water temperatures because development and farming have stripped cooling trees from stream banks.
Some of those streams and stretches of the larger Rappahannock River are cool enough that the state stocks them with other trout, mostly rainbow, for fishing. State biologists say brookies, the only trout native to Virginia, still account for 80 percent of wild trout in the state, a larger share than all of the other Southeastern states combined.
But, for people who live in the Piedmont area and no longer have native brookies in their backyard creeks, the change is noticeable. In 2013, the PEC sent out a survey to 200 residents near the streams to ask which conservation measures they thought the area needed most.
“The response we got back from people is that they really wanted to see brook trout back in the streams where they had been,” Vuocolo said.
More than 400 streams or portions of streams contain brook trout in Virginia, according to state biologists who monitor the populations. The olive-green fish seldom grow longer than one foot in Virginia streams and can only jump about a foot to overcome obstacles when swimming upstream.
Metal or concrete culverts might allow water to continue to flow under a road, but they aren’t great for the fish. The way they narrow the stream can increase the velocity of water as it flows through the conduit, lowering the streambed below the passage and turning the culvert into a waterfall.
In 2013, Vuocolo worked with Trout Unlimited and local landowners to survey about 130 stream crossings in the four-county region of the Rappahannock headwaters. About half of those crossings presented some impediments to fish passage, while 30 of them provided little to no passage at all.
The environmental group also prioritized projects where stream crossings were the biggest barrier to fish in less-developed areas near the headwaters. And they had to find landowners who were willing to have the work done on their property and would consider chipping in for some of the improvements.
“We think it’s really important, when we’re able to with these projects, to think about the headwaters and work down,” said Carolyn Sedgwick, the PEC’s land conservation officer for Rappahannock and Clarke counties who’s overseeing one of two pilot culvert removal projects this fall, “It would be pretty frustrating to sink money into a project like this only to have an upstream landowner put up a barrier (to fish passage) or allow cows in the water.”
The project Sedgwick is overseeing will remove a cluster of culverts beneath a road crossing over Sprucepine Branch, another Rappahannock tributary. The pipes, the farthest upstream barrier to fish passage, will be replaced by a bridge under which water will flow freely. The national park is just upstream, so funders and the landowners involved are confident their work to improve fish habitat won’t be undone.
The crossing is the only way to get to one of the homes along the stream and was already in need of repair. During heavy storms, the swollen stream would wash over the gravelly crossing, leaving a growing number of holes in its surface.
Together, the two projects will cost about $60,000, with funding largely provided by the federal wildlife agency and the Piedmont council. Trout Unlimited and several of the landowners are also pitching in.
Installing bridges or fish-friendly crossings typically costs more than putting in culverts, but “[bridges and crossings] are more flood-resilient as well, so they tend to be a really good long-term solution,” Sedgwick said.
“This is not just about fish,” she said. “It’s about water quality, wildlife habitat, people being able to recreate in their streams, preserving land. It’s really about land management.”