Backing into a Big Culvert Project

Backing into a Big Culvert Project

By Dorothy Lagerroos


I came home in a heavy mid-summer rain and could hear the little stream near my house roaring. Usually it is a trickle. In the morning, the washed-out road left a gaping chasm –well, OK, a six-foot deep gully—across the dirt road.

“Ooh, cool,” I said, admiring the strength of the water. Wrong, I learned later. All that gravel washed downstream, covering my favorite wild iris patch and some Jacks-in-the-pulpit. It also caused the stream to “braid,” to take several small paths instead of following one main channel. This distributed what little water there was left among several shallow rivulets, making the section completely impassable to fish.

Now fish weren’t on my mind when I admired the strength of the water force, and probably weren’t on the mind of my local road crew as they hurried to get the road back in operation. But fish are on lots of people’s minds in our area, since outdoor recreation is important to locals and tourists alike.

And fish are one reason that some friends and I formed the Bad River Watershed Association (BRWA); someone needed to begin to collect data in our watershed for which the responsible agencies had very little information. We were joined in this effort by the Ashland Bayfield County League of Women Voters to supplement its efforts in regional planning. The Bad River watershed is located in the Lake Superior basin of northern Wisconsin. It covers 1000 sq miles in parts of Bayfield, Ashland and Iron counties.

Wanted: Fish Friendly Culverts

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was also involved in the formation of BRWA; they have a fish passage program. Fish were certainly on Lee Newman’s mind, a USFWS biologist. Sensing that partnerships would be possible with the new citizens group, he told the BRWA board one evening that he had procured $30,000 to restore fish passage in three culverts in the watershed. The “match” for this grant, he mumbled, would come from watershed association volunteers who would determine which other culverts needed improvement.

Seemed like a good deal, until we discovered that there are over 1000 culverts in our large, sparsely populated, rural watershed. But we were a newly formed organization in need of more members, and I thought that asking people to check out some road crossings might be a good way to interest folks in the group and to help promote a stewardship ethic. “Sure, we’ll do that,” I said. Another bad call on my part.

How to Make it Happen?

When I sat down to do the planning, I figured, ok, one volunteer could do, say, ten culverts and then we would need, oops, 100 people. I could think of–maybe five. Not only that, but the sheer size of the project meant that it had to be sophisticated. “Kids,” I said to the college students in my class, “I need a computer-sortable list of all 1000+ culverts.” The watershed spreads across three counties, involving seventeen townships and not one of these jurisdictions had a list of culverts. Eventually the students produced a GIS map with each road-stream crossing marked and numbered. This made it possible to give volunteers a map showing their assigned culverts. It also meant we could store the data in a way that the computer could search for problem sites. The college students also designed the first data collection sheet. The students did this as part of a class in which the students and I serve as a consulting firm assisting some local organization or agency, in this case BRWA.

At this point the project was becoming clearer.We would collect information on culverts, determine those needing work and present the results in a Needs Assessment report. Then we would share this report with town officials, resource agencies and others who worked on roads or streams in the watershed. Together we would figure out which agencies could remediate which culverts, based on resources available. Towns might decide to re-order their maintenance priorities, USFWS could secure fish passage funds, and the watershed association could apply for grants available to citizen groups. This agreement would be a sort of “strategic plan” for culvert remediation in the watershed. Blithely, I wrote grants promising to produce the reports. Little did I know of the problems yet awaiting.

For example, while a fish biologist can just look at a culvert and decide if it is a fish passage problem, volunteers don’t know the swimming abilities of each species, nor what species were likely to be present. They could only measure the drop, the velocity, and so on. How would we turn such numbers into a prioritized list of culverts?

Fortunately, GLAHNF offered funds for technical assistance, but did I need a hydrologist? A statistician? A GIS specialist? Or a fish guy? The answer was Michele Wheeler, all of the above, and a BRWA board member to boot!

Michele organized two technical committees, one of fish experts and one of soil erosion experts. These committees currently advise Michele as she develops a rating system for evaluating crossings.They help her find existing soils and fish data so she can apply the rating system to the range of conditions throughout the watershed. I lined up a class of environmental studies students to write the Needs Assessment and Strategic Plan, based on Michele’s research and community input.

Coordinating with Local Officials

As the pieces started coming together,we realized BRWA also needed to gain the confidence of town officials. Watershed folks and bulldozer operators are not the most likely coalition of allies imaginable.We thought we would do this by forming three-person teams from each town to visit board meetings and provide information about the culverts project. But if finding folks to inspect culverts is tricky, finding people to visit local government officials was trickier. We decided to invite the town officals to a brief presentation, and see how it went over. We had the meeting in the Grand View Town Hall. We lured them in with chili and apple pie. About 7 towns were represented and we had about 15 people. In our presentation, we used the words “fish” and “money to help with repairs” a lot.When it came down to it, they all like to fish, they all like good water quality. They don’t mean to cause harm, and if we can help them protect the water and fish while they still get their jobs done, they are happy to do it right. They just weren’t really aware of the many issues involved. The town chairman there was very supportive of the project, and some of our volunteers are from the town. In the end they made us promise to tell them when we would be investigating in their neighborhoods.

Last winter, the Dean of the College (Northland College, Ashland) suggested I apply for a substantial grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to further the watershed work that my students and I (and the BRWA) were doing.We now have $75,000 to pay for a training session on proper installation of Fish Friendly culverts and to fund a few replacements.We also can pay a handful of students to finish the data collection, assist with GIS, and shock fish. The NFWF grant also includes some money for 1 or 2 culverts to be replaced. This will help us continue to build our partnerships and show the towns that we really mean to help out. It is still a work in progress. Michele and I will each write and present a professional research paper on the project, which we suspect is fairly unique in its comprehensiveness and broad-based involvement.

As for the coalition with the road crews, we decided we had gained their trust when my own local road boss looked up from the map and said to me, “By the way, Dorothy, your driveway is not fish-friendly. You should really get it fixed.”

This just might work out after all!
This story comes from Dorothy Laggeroos, J.D. in Ashland, WI. As one of the founding members of the Bad River Watershed Association, Dorothy now advises the BRWA and is Professor of Environmental Studies at Northland College.

For more information Dorothy may be reached at; or visit the BRWA website (

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.