This is the Churchill Brook culvert running under Churchill Road in Pittsfield. It is due to be replaced with an open-sided culvert that will allow fish
This is the Churchill Brook culvert running under Churchill Road in Pittsfield. It is due to be replaced with an open-sided culvert that will allow fish and wildlife to pass through, enhancing their populations and cutting down on traffic hazards. Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 (Scott Stafford / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

PITTSFIELD -- Times are tough for cold water fish. Every time one seeks a route of escape or migration upstream, their path is usually blocked by culverts passing under roadways.

Smaller streams and brooks throughout Western Massachusetts, and much of the nation, are criss-crossed by a multitude of roadways with old-style circular culverts, creating subdivided habitats. Many of them are under-populated by wildlife because of these unnatural barriers.

But a project to open avenues for brook trout to travel from Onota Lake upstream in Churchill Brook could make things a lot easier for some of them.

The Housatonic Valley Association -- working with the Mass. Division of Fish and Wildlife, the city of Pittsfield, and the Berkshire Environmental Action Team -- is seeking to clear the water channel of culverts that block fish and other wildlife from seasonal migration.

According to Dana Ohman, an aquatic biologist with the Mass. Division of Fish & Wildlife, because the culverts cause erosion which scoops out the stream bed downstream, migrating brook trout and slimy sculpin cannot jump high enough to get into the culvert and pass through, preventing them from traveling upstream for survival of droughts and floods, or for spawning purposes.

And mammals in the area -- deer, coyote, fox, mice, raccoon, and other critters -- find it necessary to cross those roads while traveling along the stream, increasing the potential for mishaps with passing cars and the danger that poses to humans, Winn said.

So two culverts -- one on Hancock Road and one upstream from there on Churchill Road -- will be replaced with small bridges, known as open-sided culverts, to allow deer and other mammals to travel along the Churchill Brook without crossing the road, and allow fish to complete their survival migrations, enhancing the trout population in the stream and in Onota Lake.

"The amount of wildlife that will be able to pass under these streets will increase dramatically," said Jane Winn, executive director of BEAT. She said these are the only two obstructions on this cold water stream, meaning that by removing the obstacles, the quality of the habitat will be vastly improved.

Officials say the project, to be completed in the fall, started about 10 years ago when BEAT and HVA volunteers began surveying the brooks and streams to identify barriers to wildlife, and areas that have the most enhancement potential by removing those barriers. They found that the brook trout population in the Churchill Brook is fairly numerous, and by removing the only two obstacles, that population could become healthier and more prolific.

"This is one of only three major tributaries that flow into Onota Lake, and the only one with cold water," Winn said. "The fish could follow Churchill Brook all the way to the [Pittsfield] state forest."

Two grants came through nearly three years ago to help pay for the survey, the design of the new culverts and some of the construction cost. Using grant funding from two different sources, both culvert replacement projects are in the design phase. Once designs are complete, the cost estimates will be drawn up and bidding on the contracts will soon begin.

According to Dennis Regan, Berkshire County Director with the Housatonic Valley Association, the project received a $22,000 grant in 2011 from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, and a three-year grant from the Natural Resources Damages Fund in 2011 for $508,000, $362,000 of which is marked for the culvert replacement projects.

Regan noted that the three-sided culverts likely to be used will provide an opening over the stream of 16- to 18-feet wide and seven-feet high.

As the effort began to focus on these two culverts, HVA officials found that the city was also beginning to look at replacing those same culverts to alleviate the potential for flooding. So they began to work together on the projects.

The city will share some of the construction costs, although the exact total will depend on the final design of the two projects, said Bruce Collingwood, commissioner of public works and utilities.

The work will need to wrap up by early fall, when migratory habits begin to take hold, Regan noted.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford