Removing unnatural barriers and disruptions is particularly important for conserving headwater streams in the Upper Rappahannock River watershed. The streams are sources of drinking water for much of the Virginia Piedmont region and are also home to Virginia’s state fish, the eastern brook trout, along with a diversity of other aquatic life.
Protecting the stream ecosystems provides clean water for wildlife and residents alike. Breeding populations of brook trout only survive where there is the coldest, cleanest water, which makes them a good species to monitor for measuring overall stream health.
The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has taken on the work of restoring local streams by removing culverts and low-water crossings that can be roadblocks to stream health. Dams and other barriers like culverts can disrupt natural stream flow, disconnect fish and wildlife habitat, and impair water quality. By replacing these barriers on roads and driveways with fish-friendly designs, habitat and water quality are improved.
Last Friday (Sept. 29), PEC celebrated the completion of the Sprucepine Branch restoration project in Rappahannock County with partners and local residents. The effort was one of the first of its kind in Virginia’s Piedmont.
“I really applaud the Piedmont Environmental Council’s leadership and vision in working with other partners and private landowners to restore critical native brook trout habitat. PEC has been a pleasure to work with in every way, and this has been a great project,” said Jim Northup, neighbor of Sprucepine Branch, near Huntly.
Recent work at Sprucepine Branch reconnected two miles of stream habitat, as a set of culverts were removed from a private driveway and replaced with a bridge. The project included natural channel design and construction, which was completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Shenandoah Streamworks. The work included re-grading stream banks and in-stream structures that restored the natural hydrology of those streams.
“DGIF assisted with pre and post construction fish community monitoring on Sprucepine Branch,” said Mike Isel, a biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “The improvements that have been made will allow unimpeded fish passage throughout the creek and help reconnect the lower and upper portions of Sprucepine Branch to benefit brook trout and other native fish populations.”
PEC hopes that successful restoration projects — like the work completed at Sprucepine Branch — will influence government agencies to incorporate fish-friendly designs as they update roads and stream crossings.
“Most of these culverts were put in during the early 1900s,” said Peter Hujik, a field representative for PEC. “Many are beginning to fail and will need to be replaced within the next five or 10 years, so our initiative is timely.”
Earlier in 2016, Hujik led stream restoration work at Robinson River, where an oversized and failing driveway culvert was removed, and the river’s natural channel was restored. Stream health was improved by stabilizing 350 feet of streambank from erosion, ultimately removing sediment from going downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. In all, 5.3 miles of aquatic habitat were restored.
PEC is planning additional culvert removal projects with partners over the next several years. Efforts that are currently in the works are located on Kinsey Run near Graves Mill, Bolton Branch near Huntly, and Cedar Run at the White Oak Canyon trail head in Shenandoah National Park.
PEC is excited to announce that funding totalling $108,010 has been provided through National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Small Watershed Grant program for the Bolton Branch Stream Habitat Restoration Project. One of 44 grant recipients, PEC was selected by NFWF for the 2017 Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund’s grant slate. A total of $3.7 million dollars has been awarded to Virginia communities that seek to protect and enhance the water quality and habitats of the Chesapeake Bay by helping their local communities clean up and restore polluted rivers and streams.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided technical assistance and funding for both Sprucepine and Robinson River, while VDGIF provided pre- and post-fish community monitoring on both projects. Trout Unlimited Rapidan Chapter provided financial assistance, as well as a stream temperature study and profile on Sprucepine Branch.
These projects are also supported by the Ohrstrom Foundation, Nimick Forbesway Foundation, Ethel Cox Marden Charitable Foundation and the Krebser Fund for Rappahannock County. In addition, landowners that helped the effort included the Beier, Griffin, Hennaman, Northup, Sutton and Vogel families.
“What is so exciting about this project is that it can be replicated and repeated. This type of partnership is an example of how government agencies, landowners, charities and others can come together and make things happen,” said Chris Miller, president of PEC. “We need to encourage similar projects throughout the region so that we can restore and enhance water quality for all the headwater streams.”