Fish Need Infrastructure, Too

By Thomas E. Bigford, Policy Co-Director. E-mail: tbigford@fisheries.org

President Trump’s push for a US$1 trillion infrastructure package offers an opportunity to pursue benefits for aquatic resources. Most infrastructure is inextricably connected to water. The range of projects that impact aquatic resources includes dams and associated reservoirs and impoundments, levees and other flood control structures, culverts associated with transportation crossings, natural gas pipelines, dams for hydropower and flood control, our national network of piped water and sewage systems, and still others such as pumped-storage facilities and desalination plants. The numbers are staggering. Our nation boasts more than 84,000 dams taller than 50 feet, many smaller structures, nearly 600,000 miles of impounded rivers, nearly 2.3 million road crossings with culverts, and an estimated 100,000 miles of levees. Almost all of these projects impact fish and their habitats.

There is a role for AFS—to highlight the opportunities to benefit aquatic resources. As is often the case, AFS needs to track, and perhaps engage, the infrastructure debate at two levels. We must consider opportunities to comment on legislation such as the Administration’s initial bill. With congressional and agency leaders, our mission should be broad: to expand the infrastructure discussion beyond traditional transportation sectors (highways, bridges, and airports) and into those mentioned earlier and to share our knowledge about the implications of various projects on fish and aquatic resources. With the states and on a local or regional scale, we need to find a way to engage on specific projects at the local or regional levels. That might be a role for AFS Divisions and Chapters. In anticipation of those opportunities, we need to gather success stories of accommodating fish in infrastructure projects. As we heard so poignantly from plenary speaker Marah Hardt at our Annual Meeting in Tampa, well-told stories can work wonders in the most difficult situations. With the dollars and resources at stake, this would be a great time for AFS members to engage and communicate science to better inform decision making.

It makes sense to include fish when touting the benefits of infrastructure projects, from new construction to repairs. There is plenty of room to expand the discussion. Communicating to policymakers about the challenges posed by accumulating sediments at aging dams is one example of how AFS members can broaden our collective efforts to find solutions for aging infrastructure. The Conowingo Dam on the lower Susquehanna River is illustrative. The structure, built in 1928, has reached its sediment sediment trapping capacity. Nutrient-rich sediments can pour over the structure in high-water events and threaten water quality throughout Chesapeake Bay. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s effort to remove accumulating sediment through beneficial use is a compelling story because the watershed is rich in aquatic resources. Similarly, we can highlight sediment accumulation in reservoirs that impacts fish habitat and decreases recreational fishing access. AFS Fish Habitat Section President Tom Lang lists ongoing efforts to improve Lake Wichita in northeast Texas as a reservoir project with a very successful start. Early planning has given way to implementation as part of a greater Wichita revitalization. Another opportunity for engagement is to expand the discussion on new pipelines in the Appalachian Mountains and how they could affect aquatic resources. On a different scale from reservoirs or bridges, linear infrastructure projects present the fishing community with multiple environmental disturbances through many jurisdictions.

These are complicated issues that require a multifaceted approach to be successful. Letters to Congress, meetings with Administration officials, and strategic partnerships with the science, conservation, and trade associations will enable us to better inform decision makers. With the Coalition of Aquatic Science Societies, AFS can join eight other organizations representing nearly 23,000 professional wetlands, fish, coastal, lakes, and aquatic voices to keep fish issues on the agenda for infrastructure projects. With the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, representing millions of anglers and hunters from hundreds of groups, we can remind leaders of the economic and ecological values affected by infrastructure projects. And with trade groups such as boat manufacturers, we can connect fish to jobs. These efforts can help to ensure that improved water quality and fish habitat are tangible outcomes from infrastructure projects.

We might also benefit aquatic resources by taking our messages to nontraditional venues. The Water Environment Federation offers contacts with water supply sectors that control a surprising amount of water by volume and percentage. Most waters running into lakes and oceans have transited systems for drinking, waste, reclamation, agriculture, industrial, and reuse. Similarly, a visit to the American Association of Port Authorities might focus dialogue on traditional concerns such as dredging and emerging issues such as underwater noise. A third potential partner is the National Hydropower Association, which would connect our interests with the licensing process for dams and reservoirs. Those groups plus the oversight agencies and congressional committees offer a glimpse of the work before us and the opportunities. We can engage strategically (and within our capacity) in discussions about new legislation while beginning to build relationships for success. We cannot expect decision makers to read our journals or visit the AFS website; we must tell our stories to make sure that fish and fish habitat are a part of the infrastructure debate!

Note: the opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. Comments are invited at tbigford@fisheries.org.

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