Space is cleared by construction crews in summer 2023 at milepost 21 in preparation for the culvert being placed. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

The Copper River Watershed Project (CRWP) has just completed its largest culvert placement along the Copper River highway. The large culvert (COP 33), located near milepost 21 at Pipeline Lake trailhead, is one of two that were placed this summer as part of the organization’s restoration and fish passage programs. COP 33 is also the largest culvert by size, measuring 88 feet long, 11.3 feet high, and 18 feet wide.

The placement of both the COP 33 culvert near Pipeline Lake, and COP 1 culvert near the airport seek to improve habitat for wild salmonids spawning and migrating throughout the Copper River watershed. 

For the salmon spawning within the delta system and in the watershed beyond, one of major challenges to overcome is the highway itself. Culverts and bridges offer a conduit for the fish to pass this section of the delta and continue onto their spawning grounds.

Smaller, rounded bottom culverts, as well as those which are damaged or installed improperly impede fish migration by fragmenting freshwater habitat. Replacing old culverts with a wider, flat bottom design helps migrating fish move easier through the system and increases habitat connectivity.

While the CRWP prioritizes salmon, these fish passage areas are vital to other resident fish species as well such as grayling.

CRWP began culvert replacements along the highway in 2008 after identifying high priority stream passage areas that needed restorative attention. Since 2020, the organization has invested over $8.7 million into the fish passage programs directly impacting watershed health.

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When this summer’s projects come to completion, the organization will have reconstructed 18 high-priority crossing sites throughout the watershed totaling in 82 miles of reconnected salmon habitat. The fish passage program and related restorative work are major successes as the organization nears its 25-year anniversary, which it will celebrate this September.

Lisa Docken, executive director of CRWP, says that partnerships between watershed stakeholders such as Eyak Corporation and Chugach Alaska Corporation are vital to the success of the fish passage program.

“No one entity can do this work alone, and the CRWP has developed a nationally recognized framework for pooling resources and expertise to maximize restoration dollars for the greatest positive impact for salmon,” said Docken.

Funding for these efforts comes from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Additional funding for habitat restoration work within the watershed comes from NOAA and the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which authorized up to $108 billion to support federal transportation programs.

These funded projects go beyond Cordova and the Copper River highway as the watershed extends far upriver to include many small communities and projects.

One such project funded through the Infrastructure Bill was a bridge on the Little Tonsina river. The site was identified as a highest priority for fish passage in 2016.

Docken said each of these projects, no matter their location in the watershed, is important for healthy and functioning salmon habitat.

“For every barrier in the watershed we remove, we increase our capacity to support the highest quality beginnings for the entire salmon population,” said Docken.

Cordovans driving along the Copper River highway this summer have most likely seen the earth work and construction crews working at the COP 1 and COP 33 sites.

CRWP coordinates a variety of experts and skilled laborers within each construction project with the goal of reducing negative environmental impacts throughout the process. This may include minnow trapping in an area planned for construction, managing appropriate water movement and quality, and salvaging native streamside vegetation that will later be used in rebuilding the natural streambank.

Employing biologists and stream restoration managers in the process helps CRWP ensure that important details are included in each step such as placing stream bed material inside of the finished metal culvert to create a more natural stream condition for passing fish.

Docken said that COP 1 is in the final stages of completion and COP 33 is not far behind.

“We are excited to announce that COP 33 pipe is in the ground and the dirt work is on-going to finalize the design on the road while also working to address habitat restoration components on the inlet and outlet portions,” Docken said.

Watershed residents who are curious about restoration projects can view resources on the organization’s website. An updated culvert mapping tool allows those interested to view the location and progress of culverts and bridges in the watershed.

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