An innovative project to restore fish passage on Pomfret’s Mill Brook is complete.
The WRP, working with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Greater Upper Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and town of Pomfret, installed 29 rubber baffles inside the first stream-crossing culvert on Mill Brook in late-August to provide fish passage upstream.
This is the first, large-scale installation of these extruded, rubber baffles in the eastern United States.
The first stream-crossing culvert on Mill Brook is located under Pomfret Road near the intersection with White River Lane. The site is just upstream of the brook’s confluence with the White River main stem, which passes under the West Hartford Bridge about ½ mile downstream.
Access to the culvert is easy. There’s a small parking area on White River Lane adjacent to the culvert outlet. And there’s a trail from the parking area to Mill Brook across land protected by The Nature Conservancy as part of their White River Ledges Natural Area.
On any given day in the summer time you can find at least one car in the parking area. Local fisherman know this is a great place to fish – for good reason.
According to WRP Watershed Restoration Manager Greg Russ, Pomfret’s Mill Brook is an important spawning tributary in the White River watershed. “Its 12-square-mile drainage boasts cold, clean water and a diversity of feeding and spawning areas, ” says Russ. “And its location in the lower portion of the watershed makes it accessible to wild rainbow trout moving upstream from both the White River main stem as well as the Connecticut River.”
For these reasons providing fish passage to Mill Brook has been a high priority for local, state, and federal conservation partners. But ensuring fish passage has proven challenging in this location.
The first stream-crossing culvert on Mill Brook is long, tall, and steep. 184-feet-long by 16-feet-high by 15-feet-wide, the corrugated steel pipe was installed at a 6 percent slope.
Despite its large dimensions, the culvert is considered “under-sized.” This means the width of the culvert is smaller than the width of the stream. Mill Brook is 39-feet-wide at its confluence with the White River, making the 15-foot-wide culvert only 38 percent as wide as the stream channel.
The under-sized culvert restricts water flowing downstream and the result is similar to putting your thumb over the end of a water hose: the water moves at extremely high speed. This creates a “velocity barrier,” preventing fish and other aquatic species from swimming upstream.
Velocity barriers are especially problematic for rainbow trout, which need to move upstream in spring – during seasonal, high water flows – to access spawning areas.
Luckily there are options for addressing velocity barriers. Replacing an under-sized culvert with a larger structure is one option. But when replacement isn’t feasible, “retrofitting” an under-sized culvert can provide for fish passage.
Baffles are one retrofit option. Installed on the bottom of an under-sized culvert, perpendicular to the water flow, baffles interrupt the fast-moving water and create pockets of quiet water at regular intervals.
Fish can then move upstream, swimming from one pocket of quiet water to the next. In this way baffles allow fish to navigate through an under-sized culvert that would otherwise be impassable.
The extruded, rubber baffles installed in the first stream-crossing culvert on Mill Brook are low profile – just 6-inches-high by 5-feet-long. Project partners installed them every 6 feet, inside the corrugations to protect the attachment points, creating 30 pockets of quiet water along the 184-foot culvert length.
Developed originally for installation in New Zealand river systems, the rubber baffles are sturdy enough to interrupt the water flow, but flexible enough to bend over when hit with debris.
According to Russ, “Large rocks and boulders moving through the Mill Brook culvert are the biggest threat to the retrofit project, so partners are excited to see how the rubber baffles fare.”
Retrofit projects are not permanent solutions and the Mill Brook baffles are no exception.
The Greater Upper Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited installed the first baffle system – 12 wooden baffles attached to thick metal plates – in 1995, which lasted until Tropical Storm Irene flooding in 2011. The White River Partnership worked with partners to install a replacement system – 18 metal baffles attached to steel expansion rings – in 2013, which lasted about 1 year.
Despite the potential for failure, funding partners are committed to investing in providing fish passage at the Mill Brook site, largely due to the success of these former baffle systems.
“Data gathered upstream of the Mill Brook culvert shows a 500 percent increase in young-of-the-year trout after the installation of the baffle systems,” says Russ. The results are clear: baffles work.
Used with success in the Pacific Northwest, the rubber baffles installed in the Mill Brook culvert are the first of their kind in the eastern United States. And these baffles cost only one-third as much as comparable wooden or metal baffles options.
If successful the Mill Brook baffle project will provide a replicable model for economical, culvert retrofit projects throughout New England.
Many partners contributed to the Mill Brook fish passage project. Six Greater Upper Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited volunteers joined seven White River Partnership, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, and US Fish & Wildlife Service staff to install the baffles over a two-day period in late-August.
“We were very excited to help install the baffles and watch the culvert transform from a long, steep chute to a series of steps and pools that fish could navigate more easily,” said VT Fish & Wildlife Habitat Biologist Will Eldridge, one of the state biologists who helped install the baffles.
“We will continue to monitor Mill Brook for adult fish migrating upstream again and young fish being born. We will also keep an eye on the baffles to see if they can withstand repeated buffeting by large boulders and ice floes. If this experiment succeeds, anglers will find more healthy trout in the stream, but the fish and other aquatic organisms that can once again spawn, avoid floods and find cool water in Mill Brook will be the biggest winners.”
Baffles were designed by ATS Environmental in New Zealand and distributed in the United States by S. Scott & Associates. Funding was provided by the Vermont Habitat Stamp Fund and the National Fish Passage Program. And access permission was granted by the town of Pomfret and The Nature Conservancy.
A dozen WRP and community members toured the Upper & Lower Eaton Dam Removal project site in August 2019. The WRP worked with local contractors to remove both dams this summer. As a result the First Branch of the White River at the Mill Village site in Royalton is free-flowing for the first time in 250 years!
The photo above was taken during the August tour from the bottom of the “First Branch Falls,” which was the site of the former Lower Eaton Dam. Thanks to Kevin Eaton for the photo; Kevin’s grandfather was the last landowner who used the Lower Eaton Dam from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Follow this link for more information about the dam removal project, including before and after pictures.
The 2019 WRP Annual Meeting will be on Saturday, October 26. The Annual Meeting is a chance to enjoy good food; catch-up with watershed neighbors; recognize WRP members, donors, volunteers, and partners; celebrate our collective good work; and conduct business as needed.
We’ll share more details in the coming months!
One important piece of Annual Meeting business is electing Board members – WRP Members who are 18 years or older have the right to elect Board Members and to serve as a Board Member, if interested.
At last year’s Annual Meeting WRP Members voted to approve WRP Bylaws changes that clarify how Board Members are nominated and elected – see a summary of changes in the table above.
There are 3 “open” Board seats in 2019 and we invite YOU to consider being a Board Member candidate. WRP Members interested in being considered as a Board Member candidate should:
**Via email to WRP Executive Director Mary Russ: mary[at]whiteriverpartnership.org.
The WRP is partnering with Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VFWD), US Fish & Wildlife Service, Greater Upper Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and the town of Pomfret to improve fish passage through the first culvert on Mill Brook by installing a new type of rubber baffle system this summer. A recent press release from the VFWD is below (see original article online).
POMFRET, VT‑-A long and steep culvert in Pomfret between the mainstem White River and Mill Brook may soon be slow enough for trout and turtles to safely travel up. Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is partnering with the White River Partnership, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Greater Upper Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited on an experimental design to retrofit this culvert to enhance aquatic organism passage. The work is being supported in part by donations for the month of the May to the Vermont Habitat Stamp.
“Wild populations of brook and rainbow trout once migrated between spawning and nursery areas in Mill Brook and rearing areas in the mainstem White River,” notes Will Eldridge, habitat biologist, Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. “But in recent times, a steep 15-foot-wide, 185-foot-long, corrugated metal pipe culvert has prevented fish and other river-based species from being able to move upstream from the White River into Mill Brook.”
One solution, says Eldridge, is retrofitting the culvert with baffles to create a series of steps and pools which fish and other organisms can navigate more easily. Previous attempts to install rigid baffles within this culvert have improved passage temporarily, but the designs have all failed eventually, most recently in 2014.
“We are planning to experiment with a new flexible baffle design that would bend but not break under the large boulders and ice flows that frequently move through the culvert,” says Eldridge. “The rubber material should allow for many years of continued service and be more cost-effective to buy and install than a rigid baffle.”
The flexible baffles will be installed this summer through a coordinated effort by volunteers from White River Partnership, USFWS, and Trout Unlimited volunteers.
“We’re very excited about trying out this new baffle,” says Greg Russ, project manager from White River Partnership. “It was developed in New Zealand and has been used only a few times in the U.S. We’re waiting to see if it succeeds as a long-term solution for restoring passage in Mill Brook; if it does, everyone working on road and stream infrastructure in Vermont and elsewhere in the country will be eager to adopt it.”
Eldridge agrees. “While we’re all hopeful the experiment will lead to better tools for retrofitting culverts, the fish and aquatic organisms that can soon travel up streams like Mill Brook will be the biggest winners.”
The Vermont Habitat Stamp was created by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department in 2015 to help protect Vermont’s wild places. To learn more about the stamp, the projects it supports, or to donate online, see www.vthabitatstamp.com.
The White River Partnership and 5 Olde Tavern in South Royalton invite you to enjoy a great dinner for a good cause on the last Monday of January, February, and March: January 28, February 25, and March 25. Eat dinner anytime between 5pm and 9pm and 5 Olde Tavern will donate 10% of your food purchases to the WRP to support our work in 2019.
The WRP is a membership-based, nonprofit organization formed in 1996 by a group of local people who shared an interest in keeping the White River healthy. The WRP envisions a White River watershed in which individuals and communities work together to make informed decisions that result in clean water, fewer flood damages, improved access to the river, and more.
In 2019 the WRP will work with individuals, schools, towns, technical partners, and funders to:
The fundraising dinner series starts on Monday, January 28. Please RSVP if you’d like to join the WRP Board of Directors’ table at 6pm: info[at]whiteriverpartnership.org.