by Jessica Montagna, Marketing Coordinator
Despite having spent many summers working outside for my family’s landscape company, I’ve spent the past decade or so pleasantly working indoors with creature comforts at arm’s reach. Currently, I spend my days at Fuss & O’Neill supporting marketing initiatives and coordinating competitive proposals – all in a climate-controlled environment. But when I was asked to spend a day learning about assessing culverts, I decided to brave the cold November weather.
I thought waders were just for people who enjoy fly fishing. But on a (very early) Friday morning, I showed up to my team’s meeting spot, with waders in hand, to submerge myself in frigid roadside streams throughout Spencer, a small town in central Massachusetts. My teammates for the day were Phil Cassidy, a Landscape Designer, and Helena Farrell, an Environmental Scientist. All three of us work out of our Springfield, Massachusetts office. Despite the cold and the frozen water, this excursion was a welcome and exciting change of scenery for me. I donned my waders and enthusiastically “dove in”.
Helena and Phil were tasked to measure, map, and provide condition assessments for culverts throughout Spencer. You might be wondering what a culvert is. Basically, a culvert helps water (in this case, streams) flow from one place to another, often running underneath a road or other structure. They might be made out of concrete, steel, aluminum, or a combination of materials.
This particular culvert (or “road-stream crossing”) assessment is in response to a town Community Resilience Building (CRB) workshop held to address steps to be taken to address climate change. The CRB workshop is a critical part of the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program (MVP Blog). The threat from flooding in Spencer has grown with the increased frequency of major storms that deliver large amounts of precipitation over a short time period. Spencer also has a dense network of small streams that increase flood potential. At the CRB workshop, culverts were recognized as a top concern. Up until now, there had been no detailed inventory cataloging the size and condition of culverts and bridges at road-stream crossings. As storms become more intense and less predictable, undersized culverts are expected to pose a greater threat of failure and flooding.
We arrived at our first site, hopped out of the car, set up the safety cones, and grabbed the equipment. Phil set up the survey level, which is an instrument that holds a level place to determine height at various points. Helena and Phil told me that it takes a certain finesse to make sure it is level, but once you master that subtle know-how, leveling it is a breeze. Helena grabbed a tape measure and the survey rod (which is basically a large 20-foot measuring pole), and, with her adventurous spirit, bounded into the first frozen stream. The survey level and the survey rod are used to take road measurements and inlet and outlet elevations, from which the team calculates the culvert slope and roadway crest height (basically the highest point in width of the road). These measurements (and many more details and measurements) are logged in our Road-stream Crossing Assessment Field Data Form. We use a GIS mobile field data collection app that was made by our in-house GIS team (GIS Day Blog).
We assessed around 12 culverts that day. Depending on the culvert’s location, we spent about 30 to 45 minutes at each site. Some culverts were easily assessable from the roadside, others we could hardly see from the road and required hiking down a streambank. Also, because of the season, many of the streams had a layer of ice on them that required breaking through the ice before we could get into the stream. We were also assessing these culverts in residential areas, so we spent some time talking to curious neighbors about our work and also calmed curious local dogs (I quickly became the resident dog-whisperer while Helena and Phil took measurements). At each site we setting up the equipment, took measurements, broke down the equipment, and hopped back into our field vehicle to the next site. For the most part, one person took measurements, inspected the site conditions (crossing type, flow condition, bank erosion, etc.), examined the culvert’s material (smooth plastic, corrugated metal, concrete, etc.), and determined inlet and outlet types, while the other person documented the data into the tablet and took photos of the site. It was a beautiful display of cohesive and efficient teamwork – Helena measuring and Phil documenting and vice versa.
This method of electronically capturing data saves an enormous amount of time, is more accurate than hand-written notes, and it allows us to upload data immediately to our server. This data will be added to GIS maps so that municipalities know exactly where these road-stream crossings are located, what types of structures exist, and their conditions. Helena said it perfectly (and she geeked-out in the way only people who are passionate about natural resources do), that this GIS-enabled field data sheet is the perfect integration of technology and natural resources and that it “synthesizes the applied practice, education, and research into real-time data”. Translation – it takes all that they do and all that they’ve learned and turns it into something easy and usable. I was impressed in my own lay person way and geeked-out too!
So what do we do with all of this data we collected about the road-stream crossings? We put it to work! We assess each culvert for hydraulic capacity (how much flow it can carry), structural weaknesses, and geomorphic vulnerabilities (types of vulnerabilities associated with the crossing’s position in the stream and the greater landscape). We also consider possible flood impacts to homes, traffic, and emergency services. This information also provides an important opportunity to gather information about fish passage at these crossings. In the past, road-stream crossings were designed with only human needs in mind, and the natural function of the river was left out of the equation. That means that fish and other organisms that need to move up and down streams can become trapped above or below a culvert, keeping them from the habitat they need. Fortunately, the design features that make road-stream crossings good for fish passage tend to go hand-in-hand with the kind of improvements that are necessary to improve flooding resiliency. The solutions we propose are usually a win-win for both infrastructure and the environment, making both more ready to “weather” the impacts of climate change.
Spending the day out in the field was a welcome break from my daily office routine – I went home exhausted (I have not slept that well in years), but filled with a sense of accomplishment. I also want to note that while I joined the team for only one day, Phil and Helena (and many others) have spent weeks taking measurements, capturing data, and doing the sometimes cold and unpleasant tasks to work towards a more resilient future for the Town of Spencer. This work might appear like a drop in the bucket to remedy extreme weather and natural and climate-related hazards, but what I realized traveling the roads that day is that our work provides the foundation for the Town to achieve lasting climate resiliency.
About the Team:
Phil Cassidy is a Landscape Designer who, despite the cold and an untimely hole in his wader, trudged through the cold and mucky streams of Spencer and served as the efficient field crew driver for the day.
Helena Farrell is an Environmental Scientist with a background in Landscape Architecture. She is a master at busting through ice-covered streams and can balance a survey level with extrasensory perception.
Jessica Montagna is a Marketing Coordinator who was surprised to exercise her dog-training skills (she lives with a too-smart-for-his-own-good border collie/lab mix) and brought along a robust sense of merriment to the cold sites.