Fish friendly culvert coming to the Copper River Highway

Road will be closed during installation of new culvert

By Kristin Carpenter

For The Cordova Times

Construction is scheduled to begin in early November for replacing a culvert on the Copper River Highway at Mile Post 20.1. The Copper River Watershed Project received grant funding from the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service to restore fish passage at this road crossing for all life stages of cutthroat trout and coho salmon.

Our watershed has one culvert for every two miles of road, and many (but certainly not all) are on fish streams.  And data collected by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game in 2002 indicated that more than 50 percent of those culverts would restrict fish passage, but there was no basis for prioritizing which culvert should be replaced first when considering benefits to fish passage.

To help with planning and coordinating among the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, and adjacent land owners, the Copper River Watershed Project began in 2008 to create a scoring system for ranking culverts.  We developed a point system and to date have surveyed 146 culverts throughout the watershed. That information is now stored in a Culvert Mapper database with photos of each culvert, location and condition details, and a point score that includes evaluating the quality of upstream habitat and the culvert condition.

Visit http://copperriver.org/programs/fish-habitat-restoration/, culverts are the culprits, to explore the database.

With culvert condition and habitat conditions taken into account, the Goose Meadows culvert ranked the highest for replacement under the CRWP’s scoring system for culverts in the Copper River watershed.

At first glance, the Goose Meadows watershed might appear to be like any other stream system, but it actually has a rare combination of diverse habitats that makes it especially suitable for coho salmon and anadromous cutthroat trout. The two miles of upland stream channels provide excellent spawning areas.

The cutthroat trout use the small headwater streams, while the coho salmon prefer the lower gradient channels directly downstream. Most of the juvenile fish, however, eventually migrate farther downstream to the maze of placid slough channels uplifted by the 1964 earthquake, some of which are still tidally influenced where the stream joins Alaganik Slough.

These waters are warmer, slow moving, and nutrient rich – providing perfect summer rearing habitat. During the winter, these deeper channels do not freeze out, and there is enough flow from the stream to keep the water oxygenated under the ice. Thus, the watershed has everything that is needed for healthy fish populations as long as they can move from the ocean and estuarine areas to the spawning grounds and back again.

We expect the highway will be closed for a short window while the culvert is being installed, and will be posting updates on the CRWP’s Facebook page.  Please contact the CRWP with any questions at (907)424-3334.

Kristin Carpenter is the executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project.