Fish-friendly culvert installed on Copper River Highway

This 60-foot-long section of culvert took two weeks to assemble. (June 24, 2020) Photo courtesy of Shae Bowman/Copper River Watershed Projects

The Copper River Highway became a little easier to travel on June 24 — for fish, that is. Construction crews replaced a narrow culvert running underneath the highway with a 20-foot-wide “box” culvert that will allow easy passage for migrating fish. Narrow, deteriorating culverts around the Copper River watershed have cut salmon off from miles of potential spawning habitat.

The June 24 construction around mile 25 of the Copper River Highway was the first of three such replacements, and one culvert expansion, planned for completion before Aug. 15. Pieces of the 60-foot-long culvert arrived in Cordova in early June, taking two weeks to assemble. At 4 a.m. June 24, the culvert was transported to the installation site, where two cranes lifted it into place.

The installation was part of a project that has brought together the Copper River Watershed Project, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest service and other groups to remove or replace 13 problem culverts around the watershed. Ideally, current work affecting fish waterways will be completed by the end of July, when fish are expected to begin moving into the system, said CRWP Executive Director Lisa Docken. Juvenile fish found at the site were trapped and relocated before construction began, she said.

Narrow culverts running under the Copper River Highway have prevented salmon from accessing spawning territory. (Feb. 21, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Construction work has been compressed in order to minimize the length of the disruption. For construction crews, this can mean working 16-hour shifts under the midnight sun amidst heavy rain and swarms of insects. During their June 24 work, crews unearthed remains of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, on top of which the highway was built.

The current project is not the first culvert replacement effort undertaken by the CRWP. Wilson Construction Company has handled most of the construction work for past culvert replacements, Docken said. The current project has required a complex and challenging collaboration between engineers, biologists and construction managers from various organizations which would not have been able to tackle the problem alone, she said.

“I hope the community finds it a source of pride,” Docken said.

A 20-foot-wide “box” culvert will allow salmon to swim freely underneath the Copper River Highway. (June 24, 2020) Photo courtesy of Shae Bowman/Copper River Watershed Projects