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Does the Nation’s Largest Source of Freshwater Provide Equal Access for Fish? The Case for Aquatic Passage on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas
David W. Peterson Jr., Craig N. Roghair, Colin W. Krause, and C. Andrew Dolloff

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 16, Special Issue 9 (2016): 103–109

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103 Does the Nation’s Largest Source of Freshwater Provide Equal Access for Fish? The Case for Aquatic Passage on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas David W. Peterson Jr.1,*, Craig N. Roghair2, Colin W. Krause2, and C. Andrew Dolloff 2 Abstract - Federal land-holdings can provide large blocks of contiguous habitat, but in many cases, aquatic organisms depend on movement within and among these blocks to complete their lifecycles and sustain populations. The area under management by the USDA Forest Service provides 18% of the nation’s fresh water, including more than half of the water in the western US. The agency’s mandate to support multiple uses requires many miles of roads to provide access for timber harvest, oil and gas exploration, and recreation. The National Forests and Grasslands in Texas (NFGT) encompass 273,493 ha (675,815 ac), with 6547 km (4068 mi) of roads intersecting over 644 km (400 mi) of streams. A 2007 survey of 7 national forests in the southern US indicated that less than 50% of these crossings provided passage for most species of fish. Similar results were evident in our 2006 and 2007 assessments of NFGT streams, which indicated that 50% and 52% respectively, were impassable. In subsequent years, we attempted to improve fish passage on the NFGT. In 2014, we employed the same sampling protocol at 57 crossings, 40% of which were impassable, and another 19% were indeterminate—not assuring passage in all situations. The need for scheduled culvert maintenance presents both challenges and opportunities for improving fish passage. Following a record drought in 2011, the challenge for strategically planned passage-improvement projects was greater than ever. Most NFGT streams stopped flowing in 2011 and subsequent dry years, making fish passage critical to recolonization of headwater streams, averting the loss of fragile range-fringe populations, and limiting opportunities for stronger swimming, native cyprinid invaders to expand and displace endemics. Introduction Streams in the Davy Crockett National Forest provide 5.5% of the drinking water consumed by the downstream city of Beaumont, TX (Caldwell et al. 2014). It would be logical to expect that water flowing through the 246 km (153 mi) of these natural waterways within the coastal plain ecoregion would provide equal opportunity for upstream travel by fish and other aquatic or ganisms. In the Pacific Northwest, aquatic organism passage (AOP), or more specifically fish passage, has been a guiding parameter for stream-habitat management for many years, primarily due to the migration needs of salmonids. Awareness of fish-passage issues came slowly to the southern US, and was likely hampered by a culture of latent industrialization (Folkerts 1997). The USDA Forest Service (Forest Service) 1National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, Southern Research Station, Nacogdoches, TX 75965. 2USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, Blacksburg, VA 24060. *Corresponding author - Manuscript Editor: Jerry Cook Proceedings of the 6th Big Thicket Science Conference: Watersheds and Waterflow 2016 Southeastern Naturalist 15(Special Issue 9):103–109 Southeastern Naturalist D.W. Peterson Jr, C.N. Roghair, C.W. Krause, and C.A. Dolloff 2016 104 Vol. 15, Special Issue 9 is the largest federal landholder in the southern US, thus making these lands key refugia for aquatic fauna. However, the agency is also mandated to provide commercial products, services, and recreational opportunities. In order to access these commodities, an extensive road system was constructed, even into the most remote tracts. The NFGT includes 6547 km (4068 mi) of roads intersecting over 644 km (400 mi) of streams within its 273,493-ha (675,815-ac) extent (Salinas 2003, 2004). However, not all the roads crossing NFGT parcels are within NFGT control or ownership (Table 1). Additionally, state and county entities managing these roads have protocols that accord higher priority to road drainage than to stream protection through intentional hydraulic connection to waterways (Texas Department of Transportation 2013, Trinity County 2015). Conversely, various internal and external guidelines task the NFGT with road construction and maintenance activities that employ wing ditches, rolling dips, conservation basins, and other features that weaken the hydraulic connection to streams (Bloser et al. 2012; Donnahoe 2007; USDAFS 1996, 1999). For years, the Forest Service has provided technical guidance to road engineers to promote design and construction of stream crossings that facilitate migration and protect habitats for native species (USDAFS 1990). Regulations clearly state that management decisions “must not result in loss of species viability or create significant trends toward federal listing” (2670.12 - Secretary of Agriculture’s Policy on Fish and Wildlife, Departmental Regulation 9500-4). Protecting stream habitats and crossing structures from the stresses of road runoff helps to maintain species viability. Regulations are vital to conserve the complexity and value of water resources in the South, “once harboring one of the most diverse temperate aquatic faunas in the world, with species richness in many groups being exceeded only by some areas in southeastern Asia” (Folkerts 1997). Despite declines, about 200 fish and 250 mussel species still exist in southeastern North America (Folkerts 1997). Some of these taxa are at or near the edge of their range in the NFGT, thus making management for their preservation even more important. These species are already living in marginal habitats, such that even minor perturbations can be critical (Braulik et al. 2014). As a federal agency responsible for the management of lands that produce 18% of the nation’s fresh water (Caldwell et al. 2014), the Forest Service should provide healthy, accessible habitats for these aquatic species. Our project utilized data from 20 y of monitoring (Peterson 1996, 2000) and 3 technical surveys (Coffman et al. Table 1. Total length of roads in National Forests and Grasslands in Texas presented by entity responsible for their maintenance (km [mi]). National Forest Forest Service (mi) State (mi) County (mi) Angelina 243 (151) 629 (391) 375 (233) Davy Crockett 343 (213) 480 (298) 695 (432) Sam Houston 333 (207) 571 (355) 238 (148) Sabine 350 (218) 777 (483) 528 (328) Caddo/LBJ 95 (59) 285(177) 550 (342) Total (6547 [4068]) 1365 (848) 2742 (1704) 2440 (1516) Southeastern Naturalist 105 D.W. Peterson Jr, C.N. Roghair, C.W. Krause, and C.A. Dolloff 2016 Vol. 15, Special Issue 9 2006, Krause 2015, Steele 2007) to provide an assessment of progress by the NFGT toward providing access to freshwater habitats that can support fish populations. Study Area and Methods We selected study sites somewhat randomly across the NFGT, primarily by working road-by-road through each national forest—Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sabine, and Sam Houston. These 4 properties occupy portions of eastern Texas in Angelina, Houston, Montgomery, Nacogdoches, Newton, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Trinity, and Walker counties. Major river systems fed by NFGT streams include the Angelina, Neches, Sabine, San Jacinto and Trinity rivers. Culverts draining areas that do not harbor fish are referred to as cross-drains and range in diameter from 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in). We chose sites with culvert diameters of ≥91 cm (36 in) that serviced either intermittent or perennial streams, and which were most likely to be occupied by fish for at least some portion of the year. If there was good continuity in the crossing structure, but water was lacking, we still considered it to be passable. We defined structures with continuity as having a fairly level floor with no inlet or outlet drops in transition to the stream substrate. Stream-crossing assessments conducted from 1995 through 2015, including those in forest-scale roads-analysis process reports (RAPs), typically offered photographic documentation of crossing structures showing upstream and downstream aspects (Salinas 2003, 2004). We measured culvert diameter and assessed conditions at each site. We also photographed, described, and collected evidence of potential water-quality issues in associated road ditches that were eroded and contributing to AOP problems. We compressed the results of each crossing survey into a 1-page format along with cost estimates and recommendations for repairs. A crew from the Center for Aquatic Technology Transfer (CATT) worked on the NFGTs, to assess priority sites from those that we pre-selected, and then chose additional sites primarily by traversing roads and looking for crossings in goodquality habitat. At each site, we evaluated dimensions, shape, and condition of road–stream crossing structures using the national inventory and assessment procedure for road–stream crossings (Clarkin et al. 2003). We took elevations at the structure inlet, outlet, tailwater control, and water surface, and measured bankfull channel width at 3 points each, both upstream and downstream of the structure. The inlet and outlet of each site were photographed sketched. We documented natural barriers to fish passage as well as the prevalence of substrate types within the bottom of the crossing structure. We assessed our data using a filter model based on the swimming and leaping strength (3 ability categories) of representative species (Coffman 2005). We limited categories to passable, indeterminate, and impassable rankings for Filter C species, which ranks passage for the weakest swimmers, such as darters. We chose this standard based on the premise that a structure should be capable of allowing upstream passage of all species when flow is present. We applied the “indeterminate” descriptor to culverts with conditions that would block some fish species during some portion of the year . Southeastern Naturalist D.W. Peterson Jr, C.N. Roghair, C.W. Krause, and C.A. Dolloff 2016 106 Vol. 15, Special Issue 9 Results Our in-house stream-crossing assessments began informally in 1995 and became more formal in 2003, when they were included in the RAPs that were accessible to Congress. Including assessments through 2014, our survey included 102 structures, of which 75% did not provide passage for all fish species. Up to 10% of these culverts restricted fish passage due to blockage by debris rather than any structural defect in the culvert or installation. In separate analyses, the more comprehensive CATT surveys scored 50%, 52%, and 40% of structures as impassible to fish during 2006, 2007, and 2014 respectively (Table 2). In all 3 surveys, the number of structures assigned a rank of indeterminate stayed similar in ratio to those that were ranked as passable. Discussion Our finding that 75% of all structures assessed over 20 y of sampling were impassible is of great concern, especially considering the already tenuous status of several fish species in Texas (Kuhne and Barbour 1983, Lee et al. 1980, Williams 2003). This concern is further compounded by recent droughts and the peripheral status of ranges for several species in eastern Texas. Fish-crossing remediation requires significant investment of funds, time, and expertise even to make small advances in species’ benefits. Small benefits could be realized by cleaning debris from clogged culverts, which accounted for nearly 10% of the structures ranked as impassable. This low-cost effort would prevent the eventual loss that occurs when these structures become filled with and buried in sediment. Unfortunately, our stream-crossing reports have not been considered in plans for culvert renovation or replacement, and most of the problems we describe therein appear to have been replicated when installing new structures. Based on the 10% drop in the number of impassible culverts we observed the 2014 CATT data, we could conclude that improvements have been made since the 2006–2007 sampling seasons. However, our intent in the 2014 survey was to assess high-quality priority watersheds, and not to replicate prior surveys. By chance, we re-surveyed 3 structures that had been assessed on the Sam Houston National Forest during the 2007 season, none of which showed improvement in fish-passage status. However, results from the 2014 study will help managers identify and prioritize watersheds most critical to selected tar get species. The record drought of 2011 compounded the challenges discussed for fish passage on the NFGT, and resulted in the subsequent elimination of fish from many Table 2. Fish-passage surveys conducted by the Center for Aquatic Technology Transfer. Percentages of sites ranked as impassable or indeterminate (passable only at certain times of the year) and total sites surveyed (n). Year Percent impassable Percent indeterminate n 2006 50 18 92 2007 52 21 21 2014 40 11 57 Southeastern Naturalist 107 D.W. Peterson Jr, C.N. Roghair, C.W. Krause, and C.A. Dolloff 2016 Vol. 15, Special Issue 9 headwater streams. Drought conditions in the summer of 2014 again desiccated a majority of NFGT streams. Impediments to fish migration may be particularly urgent to address if future surveys show little or no recolonization upstream of road crossings after streamflows return. Additionally, species that are described as native invaders (Littrell 2006) can out-compete and occupy niches of weaker natives under conditions of limited resources. One such invader, Cyprinella venusta Girard (Blacktail Shiner) is a stronger swimmer (Leavy and Bonner 2009) than the native Notropis atrocaudalis Evermann (Blackspot Shiner). The Blackspot Shiner is an East Texas endemic; its range extends only minimally into Louisiana and Oklahoma. The Blacktail Shiner has a much more expansive range across the South. A species at even greater risk is Etheostoma histrio Jordan and Gilbert (Harlequin Darter), on the fringe of its range in the Davy Crockett National Forest, where a population on Austin Branch may have accounted for one of the western-most occurrences for this species in the North America (Lee et al. 1980). This stream has been completely dry on several occasions from 2011 to 2015. The combined drought and migration challenges for this species, which is already “rare and perhaps endangered at the margins of its range” (Kuhne and Barbour 1983), may prove terminal for peripheral populations on the Davy Crockett National Forest. The NFGT provides a significant source of freshwater because its 273,493 ha (675,815 ac) serve as a filter and collection vessel for thirsty Texas Gulf cities downstream (Caldwell et al. 2014). In addition to water passage, maintaining these waterways to preserve the viability of aquatic species is an even greater challenge. Our study documented that 40% to 75% of the numerous road-crossing structures in the NFGT impede fish passage. Significant human commitment, effort, and funds will be needed to reverse this trend in the coming years, but the goal appears to be worthwhile in order to avert future costs and restrictions associated with federal listing of species that would likely result from further range reductions. 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