It was a spring ritual. For each of Terri-Lynn Hall’s 32 years on the Charleston, Maine, Select Board, Crooked Brook and its tributaries overflowed their banks, flooding town roads.
“It happened at least twice a year at certain crossings,” Hall said. “The road completely washed out and wasn’t passable.”
That all changed in 2021, following five road-stream crossing upgrades funded in large part by a settlement with Chevron, Texaco, and other owners and operators of the Chevron marine oil terminal in Hampden, Maine.
Residents of Charleston enjoy greater safety and fewer expenses, but they aren’t the only ones to benefit. The work opened more than 12 stream miles to migratory fish, improved water quality, and increased opportunities for recreational fishing.
Numerous spills at the Chevron marine oil terminal on the Penobscot River harmed riverine and wetland habitats and groundwater over many years. In 2016, the responsible parties agreed to pay $800,000 to restore natural resources injured by the spills. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Maine Department of Environmental Protection; the Maine Department of Marine Resources; the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are trustees for the settlement.
“Service staff in the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program work with state and federal trustees to restore resources damaged by oil spills, using settlement funding instead of tax dollars,” said Audrey Mayer, supervisor of the New England Field Office. “The settlement funds from responsible parties support efforts in towns like Charleston, where we can benefit public safety and our natural resources.”
More than half of the Chevron settlement money funded replacement of the five crossings in Charleston and another on Sucker Brook, near the former terminal. Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Audubon, and the Town of Charleston also pitched in funds. The Atlantic Salmon Federation managed the projects, with construction completed by Dirigo Timberlands in Charleston and Eurovia in Hampden.
Funds from the settlement also supported upgrades in the Bagaduce River watershed, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fish passage at a dam at the outlet of Walker Pond, in Brooksville, was improved in Summer 2020. In 2021, a nature-like fishway was constructed at Parker Pond, also in Brooksville, and a culvert was replaced on Snow Brook, in Sedgwick.
Flowing toward greatness
As the name suggests, Crooked Brook is a modest, meandering waterway. But it feeds into Kenduskeag Stream, which in turn joins New England’s second-largest river, the mighty Penobscot. The Penobscot’s watershed is roughly the size of New Jersey and drains nearly one-third of the State of Maine.
The Penobscot River once flowed freely for more than 100 miles from Maine’s North Woods to the sea. Historically, it supported the state's largest populations of Atlantic salmon, with annual runs prior to 1830 estimated at 50,000 to 70,000 adults. Over two centuries, however, more than 100 dams were built on the river, blocking migration of not only salmon, but also American shad, American eels, and alewives.
Reviving a river and its fish
In 2000, the Service, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, listed Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A recovery plan for the species was released in 2005 and updated in 2019.
The current plan offers a vision for Atlantic salmon recovery that includes long-term objectives and criteria, research and management actions, and time and cost estimates to recover and conserve the species in its native habitats.
Removing dams and modifying structures to allow fish to reach their spawning grounds is critical to the recovery of salmon. For the last 20-plus years, federal and state agencies, the Penobscot Indian Nation, conservation groups, towns, and dam owners have worked together on the Penobscot River Restoration Project to bring back salmon and other migratory fish.
The Great Works Dam in Old Town was removed in 2012, and the Veazie Dam was dismantled a year later. Following construction of a nature-like bypass at the decommissioned Howland Dam in 2016, nearly 1,000 miles of habitat in the 8,570-square-mile watershed were reconnected to the sea.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation, a member of the Project, has its own Maine Headwaters Project, an initiative to reconnect rivers to their estuaries and the Gulf of Maine for the benefit of sea-run fish.
“We’ve completed several dozen restoration projects throughout the Penobscot River watershed, ranging from dam removals to construction of new fishways and replacement of road-stream crossings,” said John R.J. Burrows, executive director of U.S. operations for the organization. “These smaller projects opened up thousands of acres of lake habitat and hundreds of miles of stream habitat, expanding and building on the great success of the Penobscot River Restoration Project.”
While removal of large mainstem dams is critical for migratory fish, so too is replacement of inadequate stream crossings on secondary roads. These unapparent obstacles can just as effectively separate fish from their spawning grounds...and also inconvenience drivers.
Since 2007, staff at the Service’s Gulf of Maine Coastal Program have surveyed stream crossings and prioritized fish passage projects on Penobscot River tributaries like Crooked Brook and Sucker Brook.
“Many crossings are insufficient to allow proper stream flow and fish passage,” said supervisor Chris Meaney. “Culverts perched above the water level block aquatic organisms, including migratory fish, and those culverts that are too small to handle heavy flows can cause road flooding.”
Upgrades like those in Charleston allow salmon, wild Eastern brook trout, and other fish to reach high-quality rearing and spawning habitats in river headwaters. Reconnecting small streams with appropriately sized crossings benefits not only fish, but also animals that move along stream corridors. The ecology of the entire watershed is improved.
The upgraded crossings increase stream flow, which in turn raises water oxygen levels and promotes sediment movement. In Crooked Brook, that means better habitat for brook trout, the darlings of fly-fishers. In time, salmon should also return.
Accommodating wildlife and weather
Meaney’s staff planned the upgrades in Charleston and Hampden using Stream Smart design. Culverts were replaced with open-bottomed bridges slightly wider than the river to maintain natural flow and offer dry banks so terrestrial wildlife can pass through. Natural stream beds support travel by aquatic fauna. The new bridges can handle 100-year floods, which have a one-percent chance of happening in a given year.
“We devised a plan for a long-lasting solution that best suits both the road and the stream,” explained Alex Abbott, stream restoration specialist. “The new structures allow water to flow freely during floods with room for debris and stream substrates to pass and for fish to swim freely upstream.”
“Don’t be fearful”
Terri-Lynn Hall is grateful for assistance in updating Charleston’s culverts.
“The repeated washouts were astronomical for our town from an environmental end and financial end,” she said. “It would have taken us many, many years to complete the work without help.”
In addition to the Chevron funding, the town received a $270,000 Stream Crossing Upgrade Grant from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The competitive grant program awards $5 million annually to municipalities for culvert replacements that improve fish and wildlife habitats and increase community safety. Towns must provide matching funds, which can be in-kind.
“These projects are great examples of how government can be an effective partner to promote environmental programs that support regional and local communities,” said Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim.
Hall encourages leaders of other towns to apply for the grants.
“I would recommend to any community that experiences these kinds of problems with crossings: ‘Don’t be fearful, reach out; they're there to help,’” she said. “All the agencies we’ve worked with on this project have amazing, helpful people.”
It’s said life is a journey, not a destination. But, let’s face it, we all want to get there with as little hassle as possible. Thanks to these projects, fish, wildlife, and people can enjoy trouble-free travels as they go about their essential activities.
Read a multimedia ArcGIS StoryMap about the project here.