Groups help trout in Otter Creek

ADDISON COUNTY — The Central Vermont Chapter of Trout Unlimited has joined forces with The Nature Conservancy and Redstart Inc., a private consulting firm, to determine where fish such as brook trout may have a hard time getting around in the Otter Creek watershed. 
“Aquatic passage is critical to the health of fish populations, and we want to identify the problem areas and find solutions,” said TU chapter vice president Grey Hagwood of Georgia. “Brook trout will travel for miles in one season in search of food, mates or cooler summer waters. But the problem is, they can’t always get where they need to go.” 
Hagwood and his chapter landed a $2,500 grant from a national TU program called Embrace-a-Stream to help pay for culvert assessments in tributaries of Otter Creek this summer.
Combined with other public and private funds, Trout Unlimited’s contribution will allow researchers to assess and catalog undersized and poorly designed culverts.
“We’re delighted and grateful to be partnering with Trout Unlimited and our other funders on this important project,” said Heather Furman, The Nature Conservancy’s Vermont director. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department have pooled funds for this project with the Vermont Community Foundation, which made a contribution from its Lake Champlain and Tributaries Restoration Fund.  
A recent Lamoille River Basin assessment is representative of others conducted by The Conservancy in the Lake Champlain watershed. The Conservancy assessed culverts’ capacity to permit the passage of aquatic organisms and to withstand high-volume water flows without failing.
“Cataloguing and prioritizing the structures is the first step to solving the aquatic connectivity problem,” says Nature Conservancy conservation biologist Paul Marangelo. “In some towns, we found 60 to 80 percent of culverts evaluated to be partially or completely incompatible with aquatic passage. Out of the 1,160 culverts assessed in the Lamoille River Basin, 440 were completely incompatible with aquatic organism passage.” Most of those constricted culverts also have a high likelihood of washing out in major storm events.
Fragmentation of Vermont’s waterways means that aquatic ecosystems are less resilient. Game fish — like brook trout and salmon — minnows, turtles, salamanders and invertebrates need to move freely to find food and breed, maintaining genetic diversity. Fish also need to take refuge from harsh conditions, seeking warmer waters in winter, and cooler water in summer, a need now made increasingly dire by climate change.
The earlier Lamoille River basin assessment uncovered significant culvert failings: “I found some jammed with old bicycles, dammed with logs, or crushed, while others were disconnected in the middle, with the water not running all the way through,” says Dan “Rudi” Ruddell of Redstart Inc. The Conservancy contracted with Redstart Inc. to conduct the fieldwork in the Lamoille watershed. 
The worst barriers are undersized culverts that are elevated above the downstream water surface. These so-called perched culverts represent a significant barrier to mobility by requiring migrating to fish to leap into the opening from the pool below.   
“When a stream passes through an undersized culvert during high flows, the water shoots out the downstream end like a fire hose, scouring a deep pool, and leaving the culvert perched above, inaccessible to fish,” says Vermont DFW fisheries biologist Rich Kirn. “We have undersized perched culverts all over the state.”
“There has been great cooperation, communication and enthusiasm from the state level down to the town level,” said Marangelo, the conservation biologist. “By helping fish, we are also helping our municipalities to prevent costly future flooding.”
Members of Trout Unlimited will be helping out with culvert assessments this summer by calling landowners for permission to access privately owned culverts and by assisting with culvert measurements needed for the assessments.
The Nature Conservancy has now completed aquatic connectivity assessments in the Lamoille, Poultney, Mettowee, Missisquoi, Pike, and Rock River watersheds, with evaluations under way in the Lewis and Otter creek watersheds.
Learn more at [email protected]. For more information about aquatic connectivity in Vermont, link to the Vermont Fisheries and Wildlife Department website: www.vtfishandwildlife.com/fisheries_AOP.cfm.

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