Creek washout removes fish barrier causes problems

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BUCKFIELD — “We try to find a silver lining,” says Buckfield Interim Town Manager Brad Plante about the two sides of Shedd Hollow Road that no longer meet over Darnit Brook.

“That’s a demolition expense we don’t have to deal with,” he said of the destruction of the culvert bride that was swept downstream during a storm last October.

“It was like David Copperfield waved his arm and made the bridge disappear, it was unbelievable,” said Plante.

Local officials have been discussing plans to rebuild the culvert and remove any barriers for the fish.

Plante recalled that during the morning of October 31 Tyler Belanger from the Public Works Department sent him a text with pictures  of the damage.

“[Belanger] sent me a text with a couple of pictures around 7 a.m. [In the pictures] there was a hole in one section, but the bridge was intact; by the time I got there, it was gone. … I later got a call from Randy McMullen (Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management) and he asks, ‘What’re you going to do about all the debris?’ I said, ‘What debris?’ he says, ‘Isn’t the road surface and bits of debris and pieces of…’ ‘nope.’ ‘What do you mean ‘nope?’ ‘Randy, I have no idea where it went and I’m not going looking for it.’”

Plante said McMullen made sure to provide the town with guidelines on proper disposal of any debris if it were later discovered.

Darnit Brook is a tributary to the West Branch of the Nezinscot River, part of the Androscoggin River watershed, and is considered an important habitat for the Eastern Brook Trout.

Jeff Stern, environmental planner for the Androscoggin River Watershed Council (ARWC), secured a grant in the summer of 2015 to conduct a barrier assessment. Stern said the report will look for barriers to fish passage in all the streams that are within the Nezinscot River’s watershed.

The group combed the brooks and streams that feel the Nezinscot and ultimately the Androscoggin looking for obstructions that would keep brook trout from traveling. They found one in the Shedd Hollow Road culvert.

“The Oxford County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Androscoggin Valley Soil and Conservation districts and the ARWC, our three entities did this barrier assessment … I personally remember this crossing at Shedd Hollow Road on Darnit Brook was part of my territory. I remember looking at and even back then, August of 2015, we could see it was a big problem for fish passage.” Stern explained.

“What was in there was a rusted-out pipe arch culvert.  It was so rusted out that the water would come in from the upstream end and about halfway through the culvert it would all drop down out of the bottom and flow out the bottom of the culvert, so the lower half was totally dry; this was not good for fish passage plus there was a lot of erosion coming down from the road which is not good for water quality.”

This assessment came after a bridge inspection report performed by Maine Department of Transportation in October of 2011, had already found the condition of the culvert and its placement to be poor.

As a result of the Clean Water for Maine bond that was ratified by voters in 2014, the ARWC applied for a competitive grant program from the DEP on behalf of the town and was awarded $95,000, “approximately half the estimated cost of the project,” according to ARWC Executive Director Ferg Lea.

A figure of approximately $210,000 is what Plante is working with until proposals are complete. Further applications, filed with help from the ARWS, have been submitted to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service for grants to the town that, according to Plante, “could be up to $50,000. We’d be happy with half of that.”

The project has got the support of Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who in a letter to the Northeast Regional Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Wendi Weber, highlighted the importance of Darnit Brook as, “an important Maine fishway,” and underscored that, “The town of Buckfield and the ARWC are in critical need of the additional support and funding … this grant would provide.”

Buckfield had also submitted figures to FEMA because of the storm damage, that the President declared a disaster eligible for federal relief on January 2, that included repairs for the bridge.  Representatives from the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) told Plante that the bridge can be put into the claim minus the grant from the DEP already on the books, so the town applied for the remaining estimated cost of $115,000.

“We’re waiting to see if we’re going to get additional grant money and the plans from U Maine.” Plante said. Anything not provided by environmental grants or disaster relief funding would be the town’s responsibility.

 “Brook Trout especially are pretty finicky when it comes to water quality.  They do not tolerate pollution very well [and] especially like the cold water and need to have access to areas of colder water and as climate change progresses its more important that ever for these fish to be able to get into cooler, headwater areas.” Stern said.

The idea proposed by the ARWC is to replace the washed-out culvert with what Lea explains as a, “Stream Smart” crossing. “As a very brief description, a stream smart crossing maintains the stream at its natural width and slope and has a natural bottom … the culvert that was there was extremely undersized as witnessed by the fact that they had two additional overflow culverts and the area upstream from the culverts still flooded.”

Stream Smart crossings are designed to handle fish, sediment and high-flow storm events, “without failure or damage to the structure. In short, they allow a stream to act like a stream” According to information released by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Seeing that the challenge is centered around civil and environmental engineering and an opportunity for tomorrow’s engineers to learn, Lea reached out to the Engineering Department at the University of Maine at Orono who, according to Lea, “are working on some alternatives” which they will present to the selectboard when completed.

Lea is also conscientious of climate change and the additional burden it will place on infrastructure, writing in an e-mail to the Advertiser Democrat, “Smart Stream crossings are very resilient to the impacts of climate change including the increased severity and frequency of violent storms.”

In that correspondence Lea also reinforces the importance of the trout’s habitat in Maine; that, “Western and Northern Maine … are some of the last natural refuges for native brook trout.  The trout used to be prevalent all the way from Georgia to the Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island).”

Seeing an educational potential in a situation requiring civil and environmental engineering, Lea reached out to the University of Maine Orono’s Engineering Department.  Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Melissa Landon, supervises the students’ project; which serves as their capstone, an important final grade reflecting the application of one’s college education.  The team is working on a few options to present to the selectboard, although Plante noted that the washout, “change the whole project.”

Notwithstanding, Plante says, “we need to get a more solid estimate on the project prior to he town meeting, which is in June, so they can put an article in for the rest of the money to finish the project.”  The students need only design the project to 50 percent completion for the sake of their capstone, at which point a certified engineer contracted by the town will finish the work.

Progress should be underway as Plante discloses that the DEP grant must be used within two years. “The two years are up, I think late this fall, although I’m sure there is a mechanism to get it extended if the project is rolling by then,” he said.

Since the wash-out, dispatchers at Oxford County have reflected the change in their computers so that if they must send emergency services out to Shedd Hollow Road they know which way to send them that they aren’t blocked by a stream.

A bridge may not even be the solution the town opts for, the roadway and the habitat protection measures can be looked at separately. “Environmentally, without that culvert there Darnit Brook flows nice and freely, so if it’s not replaced I feel the issue of fish being able to move up and down is kind of moot,” Plante observes.

Choosing not to rebuild the bridge would save on construction cost, although there would still be some. “The town would have to put up permanent barriers,” said Plante, “right now what we got are jersey barriers the state loaned us; the DOT was very cooperative on the day the bridge blew out and the next day we had barriers.”

However, “the first day we didn’t have the barriers so we went and put some big piles of dirt and some orange cones out there and it looked like, well, have you ever see the Dukes of Hazzard?” Plante laughed.

Buckfield resident Kenneth Farrington offered a small patch of his own land and signed the paperwork for an easement for the town so the plow trucks can turn around. Next year there will be one youngster taking the school bus, presenting the issue of a more cumbersome vehicle needing to turn around. “If it comes to the point where they have to turn the bus around it doesn’t bother me. I mean its helps kids, its about kids, you know?” Farrington tells the Advertise Democrat.

abrown@advertiserdemocrat.com