Last fish passage barrier removed on Rochester’s Wing Brook

Construction has started to remove the last barrier to fish passage on Wing Brook in Rochester: the stream-crossing culvert at Wing Farm Road.

The Wing Farm Road culvert is located near the mouth of Wing Brook, and is one of only three stream-crossing structures on the stream. Until recently all three structures were under-sized, making them barriers to fish passage and vulnerable to flood damages.

Why under-sized culverts matter

Stream-crossing culverts are under-sized when the width of the structure is narrower than the stream is wide – over 80% of the culverts in the White River watershed fit this description. Why does this matter?

Under-sized, stream-crossing culverts make roads vulnerable to flood damages.

During a rainstorm, water backs-up behind under-sized culverts because the stream flow is wider than the culvert inlet. Water that can’t pass through the culvert forms a whirlpool upstream, eating away at – or eroding – the river and road banks as the water rises higher and higher.

The Wing Farm Road culvert inlet is narrower than the stream is wide.

In smaller rainstorms this erosion can cause the river and road banks to slump, requiring regular maintenance to prevent a complete collapse. In larger rainstorms this erosion can wash away the road completely – this happened in hundreds of locations during Tropical Storm Irene.

Under-sized culverts also block the passage of fish. Vermont’s native fish need to migrate upstream in search of cool water during the summer months and to lay their eggs during the spring or fall.

During a rainstorm the water that passes through an under-sized culvert is moving at high speed – like water passing through a garden hose when you put your thumb over part of the opening. When it exits the culvert, the fast-moving water scours the stream downstream, eroding the bed and banks.

Over time this scouring action lowers the bed of the river below the culvert, creating a large drop – or perch – from the culvert outlet to the water below. Native fish can only jump about 1-foot, so culverts that are perched more than 1 foot become a barrier to fish trying to move upstream.

“The impact under-sized culverts have on native fish can be easy to observe,” states Executive Director Mary Russ. “During the low water conditions this summer, many people reported seeing groups of fish congregating in the pools below perched culverts or near the mouths of cold-water streams.” According to Russ, “Many of these fish were stuck – they were unable to move through under-sized, stream-crossing culverts to access cold-water habitat upstream. Some of these fish survived; some did not.”

Focusing on Wing Brook

Wing Brook is a tributary to the West Branch of the White River. From its headwaters in Hancock, Wing Brook travels over 5 miles through a primarily-forested landscape on its way to its confluence with the West Branch in Rochester. Along the way its pools and riffles are home to healthy populations of native fish – like brook trout – as well as the waterbugs they depend on. As a result Wing Brook is an important spawning stream in this portion of the Upper White River watershed.

After Tropical Storm Irene the WRP and its partners identified Wing Brook as an important fish passage restoration site for several reasons:

  1. There were only three stream-crossing structures in the 2.8-square-mile Wing Brook watershed and all three were under-sized.
  2. Two of these road/stream crossings suffered major damages during Tropical Storm Irene and required ongoing maintenance to prevent road failure.
  3. The Wing Brook confluence is located within the West Branch Restoration Project area, a 1.5-mile long, in-stream and riverside habitat restoration project completed after Tropical Storm Irene.

The WRP worked with partners to replace the Maple Hill Road culvert in 2016 (pictured) and the Marine Hill Road culvert in 2017.

Using Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department State Wildlife Grant funds, the WRP worked with Rochester-based engineer Kricket McCusker to design replacement projects for the three, town-owned, stream-crossing culverts on Wing Brook at Maple Hill Road, Marine Hill Road, and Wing Farm Road in Rochester.

Then, using a combination of US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and private foundation funding, the WRP worked with partners and local contractors to replace the Maple Hill Road and Marine Hill Road culverts in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

The Wing Farm Road culvert replacement will complete the project, reducing flood damages at road/stream crossings and restoring fish passage to the entire Wing Brook watershed.

The project also supports the local economy. Project funding benefits local businesses – from the design engineer to the construction contractors.

A culvert replacement project in action

If you’re driving through Rochester this month and have a few minutes to spare, head west on Rte 73 for 1.5 miles; turn right on Maple Hill Road; then drive 0.3 miles to Wing Farm Road and turn left. Slow down after 0.1 miles to drive over the temporary bridge across Wing Brook and you’ll see heavy machinery from Harvey’s Plumbing & Excavating (Rochester, VT) working at the site.

Over the past few weeks Harvey’s operators have installed the temporary bridge to allow traffic to bypass the construction site; removed the road material down to the new stream bed elevation; removed the old metal culvert; and knocked out the concrete cradles at the culvert inlet and outlet along with 2 old, concrete bridge abutments uncovered during the road excavation work.

Operators cut the Wing Farm Road culvert in half before removing it with an excavator.

This week the operators will install a series of rock weirs – large rocks buried in the stream bed and banks in the shape of a channel-spanning “U.” The weirs insure fish can pass upstream by holding the bed elevation at a constant slope and directing water through the center of the new channel.

In a few weeks subcontractors from Tremblay Construction (Washington, VT) will pour concrete footings and abutments for the new bridge. And sometime near the beginning of September, a crane operator will place a 60-foot-span bridge on the new abutments to complete the project.

Wing Farm Road project partners

The WRP is working with a number of partners to implement the Wing Farm Road culvert replacement project, including the town of Rochester, US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, High Meadows Fund, National Forest Foundation, State Wildlife Grant, and Vermont Clean Water Block Grant as well as local contractors Kricket McCusker, Harvey’s Plumbing & Excavating, and Tremblay Construction.

Working with partners to restore fish passage is one important way the WRP accomplishes its mission: bringing people together to improve the long-term health of the White River and its watershed. Since 2008 the WRP has worked with partners, funders, and 5 towns to complete 13 culvert replacement and dam removal projects, opening 125 miles of river in Hancock, Pomfret, Randolph, Rochester, and Sharon.