Aquatic Organism Passage: A Princeton Hydro Blog Series

Introducing part one of a multi-part blog series about aquatic organism passage
What you’ll learn:
  • What is aquatic organism passage?
  • Why is it important?
  • How does Princeton Hydro support it?

This photo from NYS DEC demonstrates a well-designed stream crossing.

Since the US government began allotting funds for building roads in U.S. national forests in the late 1920s, hundreds of thousands of culverts were built across the country. Culverts, or drainage structures that convey water underneath a barrier such as a road or railroad, were originally built with the intention of moving water quickly and efficiently. While this goal was met, many migratory fish and other aquatic organisms could not overcome the culverts’ high-velocity flows, sending them away from their migratory destinations. If the culvert was perched, or elevated above the water surface, it would require the migratory aquatic animals to both leap upwards and fight the unnaturally fast stream current to continue their journeys. Additionally, turbulence, low flows, and debris challenged the movement of aquatic organisms.

Thus, the goal of aquatic organism passage (AOP) is to maintain connectivity by allowing aquatic organisms to migrate upstream or downstream under roads. AOP “has a profound influence on the movement, distribution and abundance of populations of aquatic species in rivers and streams”. These aforementioned species include “fish, aquatic reptiles and amphibians, and the insects that live in the stream bed and are the food source for fish”.

This photo from NYS DEC demonstrates a poorly-designed stream crossing.

A poorly designed culvert can harm fish populations in multiple ways. If sturgeon aren’t able to surpass it, habitat fragmentation prevails. And so, a once-connected habitat for thousands of sturgeon breaks into isolated areas where a few hundred now live. When the population was in the thousands, a disease that wiped out 80% of the population would still leave a viable number of individuals left to survive and mate; a population of a few hundred will be severely hurt by such an event. In sum, habitat fragmentation raises the risk of local extinction (extirpation) as well as extinction in general.

The splintering of a large population into several smaller ones can also leave species more vulnerable to invasive species. Generally, the greater the biodiversity harbored in a population, the stronger its response will be against a disturbance. A dwindling community of a few hundred herring will likely succumb to an invasive who preys on it while a larger, more robust community of a few thousand herring has a greater chance of containing some individuals who can outcompete the invasive.

Aquatic Organism Passage in Action at Princeton Hydro

Princeton Hydro recently teamed up with Trout Unlimited to reconnect streams within a prized central-Pennsylvanian trout fishery.  Our team enabled aquatic organism passage by replacing two culverts in Pennsylvania’s Cross Fork Creek. Read about it here!


“Aquatic Organism Passage through Bridges and Culverts.” Flow. Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Watershed Management Division, 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Hoffman, R.L., Dunham, J.B., and Hansen, B.P., eds., 2012, Aquatic organism passage at road-stream crossings— Synthesis and guidelines for effectiveness monitoring: US Geological Survey Open-File Report 2012-1090, 64p.

Jackson, S., 2003. “Design and Construction of Aquatic Organism Passage at Road-Stream Crossings: Ecological Considerations in the Design of River and Stream Crossings.” 20-29 International Conference of Ecology and Transportation, Lake Placid, New York.

Kilgore, Roger T., Bergendahl, Bart S., and Hotchkiss, Rollin H. Publication No. FHWAHIF-11-008 HEC-26. Culvert Design for Aquatic Organism Passage Hydraulic Engineering Circular Number 26. October 2010.

The Restoration of Bound Brook

To the delight of fish and environmentalists alike, an important step has been made in the removal of the aging spillway of Hunters Pond Dam in Scituate and Cohasset, Massachusetts. The spillway was notched to ensure a gradual release of water from the impoundment, letting Bound Brook flow free again after being dammed for centuries.

As the first barrier upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, the dam’s removal restores 5-miles of river spawning ground and habitat for alewife, blueback herring, American eel, rainbow smelt, sea lamprey and other important species. The removal of Hunters Pond Dam also reduces the threat of dam failure.

Princeton Hydro is proud to be working on this project with T Ford Company, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many other great partners. The project is funded by grants from the Massachusetts Department of Ecological Restoration and the NOAA.

The project also includes rebuilding a culvert, removing a concrete spillway, and replacing a water main. Stay tuned for more!

Habitat Fragmentation – Culvert Blockages and Solutions


Culvert that is “perched” due to scour by high velocity flows through the pipe. ©Princeton Hydro.

The Bucks County Chapter of Trout Unlimited (Pennsylvania) and the Cooks Creek Watershed Association were featured in the Summer 2013 edition of Trout magazine, TU’s national publication, for their culvert inventory work in the Cooks Creek watershed.  Princeton Hydro was glad to assist via directly investigating and training of volunteers to inspect and document potential culverts in need of retrofit.  Princeton Hydro also completed design concepts and opinion of costs for two example culverts.  Identified culverts in need of retrofit will help the creek’s wild brown and brook trout.  Princeton Hydro based the training on the Vermont guidelines for rating culverts for pass-ability.  In this small watershed a total of 97 culverts were identified with 32 of them as potential barriers, and 11 identified as “high priority” in need of retrofit.

Why worry about culverts, you say?

One of the most unforeseen danger to the biodiversity in our river networks is habitat fragmentation through un-passable culverts throughout the United States.  While blockages via dams number upward of 100,000 or so, the blockages created by ecologically and biologically inefficient culverts is likely to number in the millions.   The majority of these culverts are located in headwater areas of rivers, which entail greater than 50% of most river miles in a watershed; a large cumulative impact.  As a result, native key headwater species such as brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) in the East and cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii) in the West have had their historic ranges reduced to a fraction of their former extent.

Historically, culverts were designed by civil engineers to maximize flow capacity and minimize pipe size in order to create the most economical structure for developers, transportation authorities, and municipalities.  The unfortunate by-product of such a design approach is that water velocity through culverts is extremely high, often running in supercritical flow, even during base flow conditions, and the smooth and featureless surfaces in the structure make it extremely difficult to navigate.  To add insult to injury, the high velocity flows also scour and erode the stream channel immediately downstream of the culvert, leaving the pipe too high out of the new channel (“perched pipes”) for organisms to pass.  Downstream water dependent organisms cannot pass upstream to new habitat, and those populations upstream become extirpated due to downstream migration and mortality, and the lack of an ability to return or be replaced.  A study of impacts of fragmentation on brook trout is ongoing by the USGS Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center (USGS CAFRC) and others, and a study recently completed documented the impacts of fragmentation of local populations provides an informative view of the blockage potential of culverted streams.

There is hope in the re-connection of stream habitat through new research and initiatives developed since 1999.  One such approach is through the Stream Simulation design originally developed in its present form at the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife and adopted by the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as others, and was also adopted shortly thereafter and refined by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Extension (Stream Continuity model) for use in Northeastern States (initially in the Massachusetts River and Stream Crossing Standards, and then adopted in similar form by surrounding states).  Through the Stream Simulation/Continuity method, a culvert is not simply measured in terms of hydraulic efficiency, but also in terms of ecological and biological efficiency.

In the most basic terms, Stream Simulation (Continuity) requires a crossing that has a minimum width of the bankfull flow of the natural channel upstream and downstream, plus more width to allow passage of terrestrial organism passage such as reptiles and amphibians (in the UMASS model the increase in width is 20% wider than bankfull, but in the current Washington State model they use 20% plus 2 feet).  The other part of the design requirement is an opening area to length ratio to allow the maximum amount of natural light penetration into the culvert (openess ratio), as many organisms, such as fish, are too intimidated to travel through dark culverts.  Other design requirements include the use of slopes and velocities that allow for fish passage, and roughness (i.e. placement of natural substrate) to also slow down the flow.

The key challenge for the retrofitting of culverts to be more passable is cost.  As with any civil engineering project, the larger it is, the more expensive.  To replace a 36 inch diameter culvert with a 10-14 foot wide structure could increase the cost by 10-fold.  However, there are ways in completing an economic analysis to justify the costs.  For example, most culverts were historically only designed to pass storms up to the 25-year event, but in even more cases, never were sized by engineers.  A larger culvert will increase its capacity and reduce overtopping events that would require road closings and worse, cause the roadway to collapse.  Road closings require emergency management and road crews to set up detours and slowing down commerce, or worse require repetitive reconstruction efforts that, over time, may exceed the cost of installing a Stream Simulation designed culvert.


Same culvert as in photograph above, after the retrofit using Culvert Simulation. ©Princeton Hydro.

Other ways of encouraging installation of these larger and passable culverts is through the permitting process.  In New England, the US Army Corps of Engineers, allows for a by-pass of a formal review for their approval if the Stream Simulation guidelines are followed. This approach can save a significant amount of time to fast-track a retrofit.  To complement the Corps’ permit facilitation process, the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, have developed stream crossing guidelines to meet the Corps’ permit by rule compliance.  These states have even instituted state level regulations requiring aquatic organism passage via the Stream Simulation model.

Princeton Hydro was contracted to design a culvert retrofit to replace a 36 inch diameter culvert with a 12 foot wide arch culvert on a tributary of West Brook which is being monitored as part of the USGS CAFRC research project in Massachusetts.  This retrofit will be used to assess the increase in efficiency of headwater stream accessibility by local brook trout populations.

It would appear that the Stream Simulation or Continuity model is catching on, however, there needs to be more outreach and changes to existing rules in other regions of the US.  Further studies, such as that being conducted by USGS and their partners, will determine the true benefits of increasing culvert fish passage efficiency and bolster the economics of protecting fish populations for future generations.
Geoffrey M. Goll, P.E.
Vice President and Founding Partner

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