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Volunteers needed to locate Michigan's culverts

A light colored mini-van passes over a failing culvert on S. Patterson Road near Gun Lake.  A metal four-pipe culvert isn't large enough to handle the currents in the Gun River at low water levels, eroding the banks and making a fish passage barrier for the trout downstream.
Leona Larson
A mini-van passes over a culvert on South Patterson Road near Gun Lake on Dec. 9. The metal four-pipe culvert is failing because it isn't large enough to handle the river at low water levels. As a result, the bank is eroding and the water rushes through the culvert too fast for trout downstream to pass.

Improving Michigan’s infrastructure includes fixing aging and failing culverts, or tunnels carrying water under roads. But first the Michigan Department of Natural Resources needs to know where they are.

Matt Diana is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division. He stands by an old culvert under South Patterson Road near Gun Lake. The water level is low and calm before it drops into the four-pipe culvert and picks up speed, shooting out the other side much too quickly for trout to ever swim upstream. Diana called it “a fish passage barrier,” and said it’s unlikely to be fixed until the road is.

“So, we try to work opportunistically with road commissions and MDOT. Say, if you're going to be replacing the road, we know one of the reasons the roads fail is because culverts are too small. Let's get a right-sized culvert in there that's good for the environment, good for fish passage and do it now while we're replacing the road where it can be cost effective.”

Federal money for infrastructure improvements presents a unique opportunity to get many of these projects done, but MDNR has few records of culverts and the department needs help finding them all. Jim Dexter, the fisheries chief, said the agency's been working on this for about 10 years, with help from local conservation groups.

“There are tens of thousands of culverts in the state of Michigan, probably between 50,000 and 200,000 culverts in our state alone,” Dexter said.

“They were put in 75, 100 years ago and they've rusted out. They’re on the wrong angle so the water going through them is too fast and fish can't get through. Or they're not big enough to accommodate the high flow events that we are experiencing more and more each year.”

According to MDNR’s Great Lakes Stream Crossing Inventory, the state and its partners had identified 12,281 culverts at the time of this report. To speed up the process, MDNR asks for volunteers to join local conservation groups in more counties to encourage them to go on a scavenger hunt for culverts.

So far, Van Buren County holds the record for gathering data on them. The road commission partnered with the Van Buren Conservation District, Two Rivers Coalition, Southwest Michigan Planning Commission and the Van Buren County Drain Office to identify almost 1,900 culverts.

“The project was a perfect collision where significant physical structures for both transportation and drainage routes for the county overlap with our natural resources and the importance of water quality and wildlife habitat,” said the Van Buren County Road Commission’s AJ Brooks in an email.

With federal money for fixes on the table, MDNR’s eager to get more people involved. Dexter says the department trains volunteer groups to find and assess culverts.

“Which means you go out to a site, you look at a culvert,” Dexter said. “You take various stream type of measurements, measurements of the culverts, and you put this information in the database.”

A phone app allows volunteers to quickly upload the data. But before you hit the trails searching for culverts, Dexter says you need to volunteer with a local conservation group.

Leona Larson (Gould-McElhone) was a complaint investigator with the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department when she started her media career producing and co-hosting Consumer Conversation with Esther Shapiro for WXYT-Radio in Detroit while freelancing at The Detroit News and other local newspapers. Leona joined WDIV-TV in Detroit as a special projects' producer and later, as an investigative producer. She spent several years teaching journalism for the School of Communications at Western Michigan University. Leona prefers to use her middle name on air because it's shorter and easier to pronounce.