A quarter of a million dollars from a $110-million state program to improve water quality is finding its way to a tributary of the Sawkill Creek in Woodstock. Between West Ohayo Mountain Road and Penny Lane, a currently failing culvert which allows the tributary to pass beneath the Bearsville-Wittenberg Road will be replaced with something bigger and better in order to ensure the connection to an adjoining 2.2 miles of aquatic habitat.
The Ulster County Department of the Environment applied for the grant in July. ”We have heard through the grapevine that it was awarded,” says Ulster County Department of the Environment director Nicholas Hvozda, who had not yet received the official communiqué. “It’s great news.”
Administered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the grant requires a 25 percent county funding match of $62,500 from Ulster County government.
“It’s a project that was in our capital plan already,” explains Hvozda. “As the Public Works Department already has the equipment and design capacity to do a lot of the work in-house, the grant money will pay largely for the materials and some equipment costs.”
The culvert was identified for replacement by an assessment of road-stream crossing conditions in several towns performed by the county Department of the Environment in 2020 and 2021. The assessment itself was also grant-funded.
The DEC grant seemed tailor-made for the improvement of aquatic-habitat connectivity at roads, stream crossings or dams. “This [culvert] in particular poses a barrier to aquatic passage,” says Hvozda. “The intent is to replace it with a design that allows aquatic organisms to pass freely.”
Some culverts — embedded structures that channel water over, under or through an obstacle — are more effective than others. The shape preferred presently by those interested in aquatic passage is an upside-down U-shape with squared corners. A three-sided rectangle — like a stone bench — is best for letting fish move up and down a stream. “We also assess it for structural condition,” says Hvozda, “fluid flow capacity, and geomorphic compatibility with the stream bed upstream and downstream.”
Geomorphic compatibility involves the interaction of water flow with stream bed and bank structure, and its flows at different levels. If the culvert is too small, or begins to fail over the years as it becomes clogged with rocks, mud, sand and other products of the glacial till, the accumulated debris and sediment build barriers.
And that’s not all.
“When we do the assessments, we have a couple of protocols that we use to score the restrictions to aquatic passage,” says Hvozda. “One of them that’s widespread across the Northeast and New England is called the NAACC protocol. (North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative). NAACC makes its report data available to the public on its website, which contains an exhaustive accounting of road stream crossings in 13 states.
For the culvert near Penny Lane, information from a 2015 report notes that the structure was almost entirely blocked because beavers had built a dam there.
All kinds of problems begin to crop up when water flow is blocked. Harmful algal blooms, which thrive in stagnant conditions, are one infamous result. Recognized for the poisonous warning flag of a riparian ecosystem out of balance — as in Yankeetown Pond about two miles away, where beaver dam builders have left a vacant lodge surrounded by algae near a glamping site — algae have become more frequently reported.
New York State continues to prioritize funding for projects that help decrease the occurrence of harmful algal blooms (HABs). Approximately $45 million in grants will support projects in watersheds known to have experienced HABs in the past five years.
Fifty-one projects have been selected so far across the state under the Water Quality Improvement Project (WQIP) program. The culvert in Woodstock is one. WQIP is a competitive, reimbursement grant program which funds projects that directly improve water quality or aquatic habitat, or protect a drinking-water source.