Culvert Rules Drift Back to DEP
A lobbyist’s job is sometimes like that of the guy who follows the elephants in a parade with a shovel. There is a lot of mess to clean up, particularly at the end of a legislative session.
One of the biggest messes was a new rule from the Department of Environmental Protection to require that natural stream flow be maintained when culverts are repaired or replaced.
If your time is limited, here’s the end of the story.
The Department of Transportation sunk the bill by attaching a $6 million fiscal note, claiming it would cost the agency that much to abide by the new rules in just the next fiscal year. The DOT claimed that the DEP’s rules exceed those of the federal government, thereby requiring the DOT to spend more money on culvert installations.
Add in the strong opposition of the Maine Municipal Association, also concerned about the costs of complying with the new rules, and the bill is lucky to have gotten as far as it did.
A lot of legislators and interest groups worked hard to find a compromise, but as the end of the session loomed, all they could do was send the new rules back to DEP for more work.
The DEP will be back next year, hopefully in a version of the rules that draws more support. Without question, the DOT and MMA need to be a full partner in this project.
Last year environmental and sportsmen’s groups worked to enact legislation, sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree, that amended existing exemptions in the Natural Resources Protection Act to require that natural stream flow be maintained when culverts are repaired or replaced.
The Department of Environmental Protection created the rules, took them to public hearing, received some critical feedback, made adjustments, and then submitted the rules to this session of the legislature for approval.
John Boland, Fisheries Director for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says, “This is perhaps the most critically important legislation in my career in terms of preserving and enhancing Maine’s native fisheries and restoring connectivity to our aquatic systems.”
That's a powerful endorsement from the guy who knows.
But even though the Maine Municipal Association and the DOT took part in the DEP process, they failed to raise any red flags until the new rules surfaced at the legislature.
By that time, there was no easy fix for this complicated issue.
And that’s a real shame. I sat in meetings where people on both sides of the issue explored their concerns, and it was clear to me that most want to do what is right for our resources. We’ve got to capitalize on that and come back with rules that accomplish our shared goals.
Example: Brook Trout
Some days it seems like we’re always swimming upstream.
Imagine if you have to get there to propagate your species, but you find the way blocked by an insurmountable obstacle.
Brook trout don’t have to imagine this. It happens to them in tens of thousands of places all over the state every fall when they attempt to move upstream and upriver to spawn.
Sometimes beaver dams block their way. But most of the blockages are man-made.
If brook trout have an enemy in Maine, it is culverts.
Thousands of culverts have been improperly installed over the years, are inadequate, inappropriate for the area, or not well maintained. They block fish and aquatic organisms from moving upstream in search of food, spawning habitat, and cooler water. This keeps populations low, sometimes dangerously so.
This impacts more species than my beloved brook trout. Sea run fisheries including Atlantic salmon and alewives are also impacted. In the lower Penobscot River, a recent survey found that 91 percent of the 533 crossings hampered fish movement.
Fish Have Value
The cost of proper installation of culverts can be expensive, but so is the lost economic value of the generations of brook trout that are never born because their parents can’t get to their spawning grounds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated fishing trip-related expenditures in Maine in 2006 generated $257,134,000.
Unfortunately, we could be making a lot more money that that. The sale of Maine fishing licenses peaked in 1991 at 310,278. Since that time we’ve lost about 50,000 anglers, most of them nonresidents who now spend their money in states that offer better fishing opportunities.
Fishing license sales are ticking up in Maine in the last couple of years, so there is hope for the future if we can continue to improve fishing opportunities. The Fish and Wildlife Department is working hard on this but they have very limited resources to get this job done.
Maine simply doesn’t have the money to stuff its waters with hatchery-raised fish like some of our competitor fishing states do. We must focus on creating more self-sustaining fisheries.
That requires protecting fish until they get big enough to spawn and making sure they have plenty of spawning habitat that they can reach. Maintaining in-stream flow through proper installation of culverts is a critical factor in this strategy.
If it were up to me, we’d rip out all the bad culverts and do the job right, right now. But hey, I know we can’t afford to do that. So the new rules will wait, anglers will continue to fish elsewhere, and we’ll try again to move Maine toward fishy culverts next year.
Even if we succeed next year, only a fraction of the culverts now blocking fish passage will be replaced in my lifetime. Perhaps if my grandsons live to an old age, they’ll see fish passage restored in most of the state, and our once-great recreational fishing economy and heritage restored as well.