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New culverts improve streams in NE Michigan; many more in state need same treatment

Photo shows the inside of a culvert. It's square with concrete walls and a very shallow stream of water is running through it.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio

A road construction project beginning this week in Northeast Michigan hopes to improve fish habitats.

Josh Leisen, a senior manager at the nonprofit organization Huron Pines, which is overseeing the project, described the area where Gilchrist Creek passes beneath Greasy Creek Road in Montmorency County.

“These are two undersized culverts that are creating a pinch point, forcing the water to flow underneath the road at unnaturally high velocity, preventing the fish from swimming upstream to spawn,” Leisen said.

Trout naturally live in this creek, and many others in Michigan, but Leisen said the way roads have been built across their habitats have substantially reduced trout populations.

Culverts were typically built as narrow as possible, and often perpendicular to the roadway to shorten their distance, even if that wasn’t the stream’s natural course, Leisen said. “The focus does seem to have been on keeping them as inexpensive as possible.”

When the watercourse is constricted, the streams flow faster. “Oftentimes it’s 80 or 100 feet of sustained high velocity,” said Leisen. “If you can imagine a fish trying to swim up, they might get a quarter or halfway through and then run out of steam and get flushed back out.”

In addition, the fast-moving water erodes the banks of the creek and clouds the water with sand. That interferes with the insects the fish eat and upends the food chain, Leisen explained.

The two narrow culverts on Gilchrist Creek will be replaced with a single wide aluminum arch, according to a project description from Huron Pines.

Bringing the creek’s course closer to its original state will increase fish populations and make the area more attractive to tourism, Leisen said.

“Whether you’re a local to Montmorency County or not, it does draw visitors from downstate and from around the region to fish for trout. Clean water really benefits everyone.”

Brett joined Michigan Public in December 2021 as an editor.