Replacing Bigelow Creek’s culverts preserves wildlife habitat: Bigelow Creek A

By Stephanie Fox,Natural Resource Intern, USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region (October 2020)Feature: Bigelow Creek - After 1

Long before humans built roads, overpasses and bridges, Michigan’s Bigelow Creek cut across the landscape uninterrupted. Animals that relied on migration up or down the cold-water stream made their journey with ease. Today however, human development has sliced Bigelow Creek into small segments severely limiting the movement of the aquatic animals that live in the water.

The USDA Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, Newago County Road Commission, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Muskegon River Watershed Assembly are working to change this by replacing culverts where roadways and Bigelow Creek converge, thereby maintaining the roads used by humans while benefiting the aquatic fish and wildlife that call the creek home.

Bigelow Creek flows into the Muskegon River, followed by Muskegon Lake, and then, ultimately, Lake Michigan. Therefore, ensuring high water quality of Bigelow Creek can have a positive impact on the Lake Michigan watershed—the source of nearly 10 million people’s drinking water.

“The Bigelow Creek subwatershed is relatively intact and healthy” says Mark Tonello, a MDEGLE Fisheries Management Biologist. “It hosts self-sustaining populations of Brook Trout, Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout (Steelhead), Chinook Salmon, and Coho Salmon. Bigelow Creek has remained a high-quality cold-water stream in large part due to a lack of intensive human development adjacent to it and its tributaries, since much of the watershed remains in a forested, undeveloped state.”

Feature: Bigelow Creek - Before culvert replacementWhen roadways were constructed throughout the Bigelow Creek watershed, oftentimes metal pipes, called culverts, were used to convey Bigelow Creek under the roadway at locations where the road and creek met.

Unfortunately, many of the culverts were undersized and incorrectly placed, preventing Bigelow Creek from flowing freely. As a consequence, fundamental river processes such as sediment and organic matter transport have been disrupted and habitat fragmented. A variety of habitat types are necessary for fish and other aquatic organisms throughout the duration of their life-span. Cutting off access to these habitats by undersized culverts threatens the health and productivity of Bigelow Creek. Some culverts were also structurally flawed. Many were rusting, cracked, and deteriorating, causing a threat to the integrity of the roads above them.

Utilizing $534,000 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funds awarded from 2016-2020 through the USDA Forest Service and over $400,000 in matching funds from partners these issues can be addressed by identifying and replacing culverts in need of repair. The replacement of the undersized culverts is being designed using the USDA Forest Service Stream Simulation approach where the new culverts are large enough to allow for aquatic organism passage and withstand high flows.

Feature: Bigelow Creek - After 2In the past four years, nine (9) culverts have been identified as needing to be replaced and five (5) have already been repaired. Upon completion of the project, targeted for 2022, the nine (9) new culverts will benefit the larger Lake Michigan watershed by reconnecting over 18 miles of high-quality cold-water stream, thus allowing for free flow of Bigelow Creek and restored aquatic organism passage. This project will also improve water quality by reducing sediment from entering the waterway that can accumulate and cover fish and aquatic insect habitat. The project team has already witnessed the benefits of these efforts as evidenced by the movement of fish through the newly constructed culverts and unrestricted flows during large rain events.