A pipe culvert that obstructed the East Branch Black River for decades is gone and with it the persistent problems it caused with erosion, flooding and fish passage. In its place, a shiny aluminum arch ushers wild brook trout to 20 miles of habitat upstream of County Road 622 — vital spawning and nursery grounds supporting the river’s famed fishery. Huron Pines is proud to have led this effort, more than two decades in the making, to restore the Shingle Mill crossing.
Dodging raindrops, a yellow- and black-striped dragonfly hovered and dipped her tail into the flowing water again and again, each time depositing her eggs into fine gravel at the river’s edge. Just feet away, a massive Montmorency County Road Commission grader rumbled slowly across the newly rebuilt road crossing, its scraper blade gingerly smoothing the last bit of earth into place. Unfazed, the dragonfly went about her work — dodge, dip, repeat — before she zoomed off somewhere downstream.
This is the point where a typical story would talk about the return of nature as men and their machines retreat but, the fact is, nature never left the Shingle Mill crossing in the first place. Those construction workers talk excitedly about big trout they’ve spotted over the course of the 6-week river restoration project. A week into the excavation, as a temporary channel diverted the river around the job site, workers marveled at a native lamprey they plucked from a hole and released unharmed into the stream. It’s more like nature was eagerly waiting outside a concert hall for the doors to open and they finally have.
At certain times of the year, the old Shingle Mill crossing was very much like a locked door to fish and other river creatures. Spring runoff rushing through the 9-foot-wide pipe culvert was too strong for trout to swim against, cutting off access to the upstream side of County Road 622. Even more damaging was the sediment washing into the East Branch whenever floodwaters overtopped the dirt road during heavy rains and thaws. That sediment buried crucial spawning gravel where trout and other river creatures, including dragonflies, lay their eggs.
These problems were finally resolved in June with the installation of a 27-foot bottomless arch culvert that lets the river pass naturally through and grants brook trout, a native and prized game fish, unfettered access to upstream habitat.
“Putting this 27-foot span here will improve the ability of the river to pass flood water which has been a maintenance and safety issue for the road commission,” Josh Leisen, Senior Project Manager with Huron Pines said. “It also slows the water velocity way down so it’ll be nice and easy for trout and other organisms to reach upstream habitat that’s important for spawning, refuge and foraging. Having a well-connected river is really important for brook trout.”
“The Black River rises right to the top for us,” Matt Kowalski, a Fisheries biologist who heads the National Fish Passage Program for the Alpena FWS office said. “There’s brook trout above and below the crossing already but that upstream habitat is high quality, critical spawning habitat. It’s a key migration corridor and, with climate change really impacting coldwater streams, being able to migrate through that crossing gives them a better chance for survival. It’s pretty exciting to get this completed.”
Heather Rawlings is also a biologist representing the FWS on the Upper Black River Council, a steering committee for restoration projects within the watershed. She said this one was conceived more than 22 years ago when it was known as “Bud’s Bridge” after Bud Slingerland, the retired state representative and former council chair who lived and fished daily at his cabin nearby.
“He would have been so excited to see this happen,” Rawlings said of Slingerland. “He saw daily the effects of soil washing into the river and what happened every time the river flooded. This is a pivotal site and the only one left on the East Branch that needed addressing. It’s been a huge success story for all of us involved in Northern Michigan watersheds.”
“This crossing is so close to his former homestead which is now owned by the people of Michigan,” said Carol Rose who currently chairs the council Slingerland started. “Anyone can visit the ‘Slingerland Reach’ and fish the same stretches as Bud. This restoration has been long awaited and Bud is smiling up there now.”
Funding for the project also came from the Walters Family Foundation which backs projects improving and preserving Michigan’s waterways.
“The Walters Family Foundation is proud to support Huron Pines in their critical work to build sustainable river systems like that of the Black River because we believe in the interwoven vitality of Michigan’s communities and our natural environment,” said trustee, Peter Walters.
Additional project partners included the Montmorency County Road Commission, Huron Engineering and Surveying, Inc., MacArthur Construction and the Upper Black River Council.
Jill Scarzo is Program Assistant for Huron Pines, where she’s worked since 1997. She said a project of this scale and with this many partners falls perfectly within the conservation nonprofit’s expertise.
“The success of a project 20 years in the making is a combination of planning and creativity on the part of Huron Pines,” Scarzo said. “A foundation may desire to enhance a particular watershed, one grant might fund projects in a particular fishery while another funds actions with a specific result. Huron Pines is constantly sorting and piecing these funding components together looking for the perfect project fit and this was definitely one of those projects.”
Video: Huron Pines Senior Project Manager Josh Leisen explains how the project gave wild brook trout access to 20 miles of upstream habitat while reducing erosion and flooding caused by an undersized culvert under County Road 622 in Montmorency County.