Fish passage projects continue to benefit Western communities

Apr 30, 2024

By Rachael Hamby

Across the United States, outdated structures such as culverts and dams prevent fish and other aquatic and terrestrial species from following rivers and streams to reach upstream habitat. In many cases, these structures also contribute to flooding and other hazards for communities. Removing these barriers or replacing them with bridges or other structures that enable fish and other species to move freely upstream can greatly improve access to habitat, and is often commonsense and straightforward, but can be cost-prohibitive for small communities to plan, design, and implement on their own. Over the past few years, however, federal government investments in fish passage and other infrastructure improvements have started to make a difference, not just for fish, but for communities that also enjoy benefits such as improved road safety and enhanced recreational access.

On April 24, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced the latest round of funding awards for projects that address barriers to fish passage across the country. This funding round totals just over $70 million for projects in 29 states, including $6.9 million for seven projects in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico.

A culvert along Deep Creek in Arizona, which will be addressed as part of the Salt and Little Colorado River Basins project. USFWS

  • In Apache County in northeastern Arizona, the Salt and Little Colorado River Basins project will invest $2.2 million in planning and implementation of fish passage improvements across three creeks and two rivers. In addition to physical barriers, these projects will also address thermal barriers, which are created when a section of a river or stream is too warm for fish to pass through. Thermal barriers can be caused when water flows are slowed by physical barriers or when there is not enough water moving through the river or stream.
  • In La Plata County in southwestern Colorado, the Cherry Creek project will open 15–20 miles of habitat for fish species including the roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker, by replacing a traditional culvert with a bottomless culvert. The new structure will also reduce flood risk for communities in the area.

An example of a bottomless culvert. USFWS

  • In Idaho County in northern Idaho, the South Fork Running Creek project, led by the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management Watershed Division, will invest $420,000 to remove a culvert that will open nearly four miles of habitat for Snake River Basin steelhead and bull trout. The culvert replacement will also benefit road access for the Tribe and other communities.
  • At the Upper Clark Fork River project in Deer Lodge County in western Montana, a project led by Trout Unlimited will invest $1 million to improve fish passage and to install fish screens to prevent fish from entering irrigation ditches. In addition to reconnecting 27 miles of habitat for bull trout and other species, the project will also improve recreational float passage along the river. An earlier funding award of $230,000 is addressing fish passage barriers elsewhere on the Upper Clark Fork River to reconnect habitat and protect the community from the risk of crop loss by improving agricultural water diversions. Together, these projects are part of an even larger years-long effort focused on agricultural diversion dams and road culverts, with the ultimate goal of maximizing connectivity along 55 miles of the river and improving habitat on 270 acres of surrounding lands.

A stream measurement flume barrier on Willow Creek in New Mexico, which will be addressed by the Jicarilla Willow Creek project. USFWS

  • In Rio Arriba County in northern New Mexico, the Jicarilla Willow Creek project, led by the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, will receive $350,000 to address two fish passage barriers: removing a stream measurement flume (a funnel-like structure that resembles a box culvert and is used to measure stream flow), and replacing a perched culvert (a culvert that is placed so that there is a small waterfall for species to jump up into the pipe to continue upstream) with a bottomless culvert that is similar to a small bridge. In addition to reconnecting over 11 miles of habitat for the Rio Grande chub, Rio Grande sucker, and flathead chub, this project will also reduce flooding and increase access to hunting areas for Tribal members.

An example of a perched culvert. Brendanboshea, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • In the late 1800s, a section of Amargo Creek in northern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County was rerouted into a manmade section of over 200 meters which cut off access to eight miles of habitat for the roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker. The Amargo Creek project, led by the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, will invest $1.1 million to restore the creek to its original channel.
  • In Taos County in northern New Mexico, the Rio Costilla Metapopulation project is the culmination of a 25-year effort to eradicate non-native fish species, restore habitat, and reintroduce native Rio Grande cutthroat trout, Rio Grande sucker, and Rio Grande chub to ten lakes and 120 stream miles of their original habitat. This award of over $1.1 million will address the final remaining barriers to fish passage. In addition to restoring habitat and enhancing recreational fishing opportunities, the project will also result in improved flood resilience.

Two culverts on Casias Creek in New Mexico, which will be addressed as part of the Rio Costilla Metapopulation project. USFWS

A number of other funding announcements were made for other projects across the country. The National Fish Passage Program is just one of several programs that help fund a wide variety of connectivity and infrastructure projects that improve road safety, reduce flood risk, enhance recreation opportunities, support Tribal access to traditional uses of lands and waters, and help fish and wildlife reach high-quality habitat. The Interagency Fish Passage Portal serves as a hub for information about these programs and the projects that have received funding so far. Thanks to these investments by Congress, communities, wildlife, and fish will be better able to face the impacts of climate change now and in the future.

Feature image: Juvenile steelhead trout, one of the many species that will benefit from fish passage projects in Western communities. Oregon State University via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0