Remember that $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed in 2021? Well, its huge pot of money is starting to make its way across the United States, and salmon, mountain lions and other animals could get some much-needed help.
At first glance, a law devoted to improving roads, bridges, airports and other transit systems may not seem like much of a biodiversity win. After all, our 4 million miles of roads carve up wildlife habitat and endanger animals, and more than a quarter of U.S. climate emissions can be traced to the transportation sector.
But the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by President Biden in November 2021, contains notable nods to climate resilience and making infrastructure a bit greener. Some of the most publicized include cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, building more electric vehicle charging stations, expanding the transmission network for clean energy, and reducing drinking-water contaminants.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find concrete — pardon the pun — opportunities to address some of the harm to wildlife caused by a century of paving over wild places and obstructing free-flowing rivers.
Among them: a $350 million wildlife-crossing pilot program and $2 billion to improve fish passage via a host of programs in the Interior, Transportation, Agriculture and Commerce departments.
“This is a generational opportunity to use large funding programs to match really intense infrastructure needs with opportunities to improve ecosystems and fish passage,” says Sandra Jacobson, the South Coast regional director at the nonprofit California Trout.
Fish and Flooding
Jacobson will get a hand in doing just that in San Diego County.
California Trout is a partner on a project replacing a roadway bridge and culvert over the Santa Margarita River, which received $3 million from the infrastructure law. The current structure floods whenever there’s heavy rain. It also blocks the migration of endangered Southern California steelhead.
The plan to replace it “started as a fish passage project, but it quickly became evident that it was actually a community resiliency project,” says Jacobson. “This crossing over the Santa Margarita River is the number-one flooding hotspot in the county.”
It’s also in the middle of the Santa Margarita Trail Preserve, a wildlife corridor between the Santa Ana Mountains and the Palomar Mountains. “And it’s the last barrier to steelhead passage in the mainstem of this high-priority river,” she says. “So it’s an ideal project to mobilize the community.”
Removing barriers to fish passage in the river was identified as a key goal in a federal recovery plan for Southern California steelhead.
“Eliminating this barrier and completely freeing the river from the ocean to its headwaters has significant implications for [steelhead] recovery,” says Jacobson. “This project is a big one, but it also takes several of these sorts of projects to achieve the goals of recovering a stable population.”
At least $1 billion in funding will help remove or replace culverts that impede fish like the one in San Diego County, but there are hundreds of millions for other kinds of fish passage projects, too, including dam removals, fish lifts, and redesigning stream channels.
A stream restoration project on Big Chico Creek in Northern California received $10 million to remove a natural rockfall and obsolete fishway. The work will help endangered Central Valley spring-run Chinook and steelhead reach critical cold-water habitat.
“We’re going to reconstruct the channel to mimic a natural channel that’s passable for fish,” says Damon Goodman, the Mount Shasta-Klamath regional director of California Trout, which is leading the project. That will help the fish reach a relatively undisturbed upstream habitat — and one that’s much colder. “Unfortunately our endangered species can’t get up there and are stuck below in a spot where the temperatures get too high,” which threatens their health.
Endangered species on the East Coast will get help from the Penobscot Indian Nation, which is continuing its work improving habitat for Atlantic salmon. The Tribe was a partner in a major restoration effort on the Penobscot River that removed two dams and bypassed a third to open 2,000 miles of habitat for imperiled salmon and other fish.
“We’re building on that success, but we still have a long way to go,” says Dan McCaw, fisheries program manager for the Penobscot Indian Nation. Infrastructure funds will help the Tribe remove culvert and dam barriers on the East Branch of the river, one of the largest and most high-quality cold-water tributaries of a critical salmon stream.
“When it comes to Atlantic salmon in the United States, Maine is the last hope,” says McCaw. “Maine is the only place where we have returning fish, and if we can’t do it here, then we can’t do it anywhere.”
Removing smaller river obstructions can make a big difference, says Serena McClain, a senior director at the nonprofit American Rivers.
“Even culverts or road stream crossings can fragment habitat for species like salmon, steelhead, alewife, blueback herring or American shad,” she says. “What you’re seeing first and foremost in all of these projects is the important benefit of reconnecting habitat to help rebuild populations of these fish.”
Dams Come Down
One of the biggest threats to freshwater biodiversity in the United States comes from the 90,000 dams obstructing rivers and streams.
There’s funding from the law that can go to removing some of those dams, including $75 million through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $10 million via the Forest Service, and hundreds of millions more from in-stream barrier removal and fish-passage programs in the Department of the Interior and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
American Rivers is leading a few of those efforts, including a project to remove five dams in North Carolina’s Cape Fear watershed that received $7 million from NOAA. It will benefit sturgeon, American eel, river herring and shad, says McClain.
And in Oregon, removing a dam on Kellogg Creek, a tributary of the Willamette River near Portland, will give threatened Lower Columbia River coho, chinook and steelhead access to 15 miles of high-quality habitat.
These are dams that might not be removed if not for the new federal funds.
“The money gives these bigger, more complex projects enough funding to get the start that they’ve needed for a really long time,” she says.
For a $70 million project like Kellogg Creek to receive $15 million from one source, instead of trying to cobble together grants of $1 million or fewer, is a “legitimate buy-in” that helps ensure it can find enough funds to be completed, says McClain.
Aquatic species aren’t the only animals that need habitat connectivity help.
Collisions between vehicles and wildlife kill 1-2 million animals each year, cause 200 human fatalities, and cost $9.7 billion, reports ARC Solutions, which works to build habitat connectivity and safe wildlife crossings.
The infrastructure law could make a small dent in that large problem with the wildlife-crossing pilot program, set to distribute $350 million in grants over five years to state, local and Tribal agencies to build structures like highway underpasses that reconnect habitat while reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions.
The law also includes a provision to update a 2008 report on wildlife-vehicle collisions with more recent data. “If we can’t measure the problem, then we don’t know how important it is to fix it,” says Renee Callahan, executive director of ARC Solutions.
And the 2008 report already showed there was a serious problem. “It found 21 threatened and endangered species for which roads are a potential game changer,” she says. “If you don’t fix this issue, you risk having these animals disappear.”
Callahan says she welcomes the new wildlife-crossing program’s dedicated funds, but much more money is needed.
Her organization has identified 15 other infrastructure programs created or expanded with funding from the law that could incorporate wildlife-friendly provisions into infrastructure upgrades but aren’t required to. So far much of the funding from those projects hasn’t been allocated, so it’s too soon to see whether wildlife infrastructure will get more resources.
But they’ve found two examples that have already received funding.
One is a project in Colorado to redesign eight miles of the I-70 mountain corridor with funding through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding American Program — a program expanded by the infrastructure law. “Wildlife crossings are integrated into this larger improvement of this highway,” says Callahan.
Another is a planning grant for four bridges in Montana funded through the newly created Bridge Investment Program, designed to help address the thousands of structurally deficient bridges in the country.
“As part of the assessment for how to redo those bridges, they’re going to also consider wildlife connectivity,” she says.
Many more projects are still to be announced soon and she hopes it’s not a missed chance to solve multiple problems at once.
“This is an opportunity to make infrastructure more resilient in the face of extreme weather, to take into account the way that animals are moving, and to provide for terrestrial and aquatic connectivity,” says Callahan. “This is the way that we are going to make sure that future generations have wildlife around.”
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.