Culverts and Climate Adaptation in the Lake Champlain Basin
In 2012, through a Switzer Leadership Grant, I had the opportunity to join the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy to help advance work in freshwater conservation and climate change adaptation in the bi-national Lake Champlain Basin.
In this region, among the projected climate change impacts on freshwater systems is a reduction in available coldwater habitat. Because the long-term health of fish populations, such as brook trout, is dependent upon access to cooler upland tributaries, a key climate adaptation strategy is the restoration of aquatic connectivity. Culverts, the pipes that carry streams under our roads, can be major barriers to the movement of fish and other aquatic organisms. Replacing barrier culverts can bring huge benefits to fish populations. Improved culverts can also benefit communities and their bottom line. Extreme high flows in streams due to more intense storms, another major climate change impact, are a key concern for people. These flows can result in flooding to homes and businesses, costly damage to transportation infrastructure, and unsafe conditions along road networks. In short, improved culverts can benefit human communities through mitigated flood impacts, safer roads, and long term maintenance savings.
My work as a Leadership Grantee comprised the scoping and design of a climate adaptation initiative centered on improving aquatic connectivity through infrastructure redesign. The work included engaging local highway departments to build relationships and understand the realities of infrastructure maintenance on the ground, conducting an economic analysis of the long-term benefits and costs of improved stream crossings, identifying funding streams for this work, navigating the complex world of federal and state emergency funding streams, and identifying planning and policy mechanisms to support more resilient transportation infrastructure in the long term.
Following my year as a Leadership Grantee, I continued this work as a consultant. Late in 2013, I joined the staff of TNC Canada, an affiliate of The Nature Conservancy, in a newly created position, the Champlain Climate Adaptation Planning Project Manager.
In 2014, we are moving into implementation of priority projects. We have secured nearly $500,000 in private and public funding to launch implementation efforts, and additional funding proposals totaling $1.9 million are currently under review. We will create a training module communicating the multiple benefits of this work to help support replication in other geographies. Expanding my initial economic analysis, we are developing a tool to aid highway departments in decision making about where and how best to invest in improved infrastructure as the climate changes. Finally, we continue to identify and pursue planning, funding, and policy opportunities – at local, state, federal and bi-national scales – to improve freshwater ecosystem integrity and safeguard communities from climate impacts.
As an environmental professional and as a parent, it’s easy to feel discouraged and overwhelmed about climate change and the challenges ahead. I am the first to admit that improvement of culverts is just one small piece of a massive set of potential adaptation actions. On the other hand, helping to implement and promote this concrete, cost-effective strategy that benefits freshwater systems and communities is work that continues to bring both professional and personal fulfillment.