BY MARY ESCH
---- — JAY — A culvert planned for Haselton Road here will not only repair storm damage but ward off future washouts — and be more wildlife friendly.
The new culvert will be a three-sided structure with a natural stream bottom, Essex County Public Works Superintendant Anthony Lavigne said.
It is the first of 19 pilot projects in the state to rebuild infrastructure to withstand severe weather events expected with climate change.
The critical role of the structures — essentially big pipes or concrete boxes carrying streams beneath roads — was demonstrated dramatically when, in 2011, tropical storms Irene and Lee washed out roads throughout mountains of New York and New England.
Culverts, among them many in the North Country, were not designed for such enormous volumes of water and were overwhelmed.
The Town of Jay was hit hard by those storms.
Lavigne said he is still awaiting authorization from the New York State Office of Emergency Management for the roughly $400,000 needed to complete the construction of the new Haselton Road culvert.
“It’s coming a little slower than I expected.”
That could be due to the damage Hurricane Sandy caused in New York, Lavigne said.
In addition to the culvert, at least five bridges in Jay that were damaged by Tropical Storm Irene need to be rebuilt, he said.
Haselton Road was closed until some funding came through, Lavigne said.
“They paid for the emergency opening of the bridge but not complete replacement.”
Poorly designed culverts create barriers to wildlife; replacement, either due to storm damage or aging, gives ecologists a rare opportunity.
“We’ve been exploring using culverts as a way to alleviate flooding and protect human safety, as well as helping fish and wildlife,” said Connie Prickett, of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
“It’s a big-bang-for-your-buck conservation strategy.”
The State Department of Transportation now uses a simple computer tool developed by the Nature Conservancy to highlight areas where reconstruction will have the greatest benefit for wildlife.
“You can do a lot of research that ends up being a report on a shelf. That doesn’t help,” said Deborah Nelson, a DOT official. “The information they’ve given us has been really helpful.”
Nelson said the Geographic Information System program developed by the conservancy’s Adirondack researchers identifies 149 culverts out of 1.2 million statewide as priority ones to replace with fish-friendly designs.
A well-designed culvert allows fish swimming upstream to pass through by ensuring the water flow isn’t too fast and there’s not a big drop from the culvert edge. A dry shelf may be added for wildlife such as bobcats.
When replacement is cost-prohibitive or impractical, the culvert might be made more hospitable to fish and the stream bed more resistant to flood damage by installing large boulders to create a step-like structure in the stream at the downstream end of the culvert, said Michelle Brown, a conservancy biologist.
The new tool identifying the most crucial sites makes the most of limited resources, Nelson said.
By adding climate change adaptation and fish and wildlife benefits to their highway projects, local and state agencies can stretch their highway budgets further by tapping into federal wildlife funds, said Corrie Miller, executive director of the Ausable River Association in the northeastern Adirondacks.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is really interested in trout habitat, designing culverts so fish can move to cooler waters (as climate change warms their traditional habitat),” Prickett said.
“They bring matching funds to communities.”
— Staff Writer Felicia Krieg contributed to this report.