Iowa DOT Details Wetlands Preservation Efforts

The Iowa Department of Transportation recently detailed in a blog post the “balancing act” required in order to minimize the impact of road and bridge construction projects on the environment.

[Above photo by the Iowa DOT]

That “balancing act” can also result in environmental revitalization as well, the agency stressed, such as for wetland areas that improves wildlife viewing, hunting, and other outdoor activities.

“By law, we are required to avoid and minimize impacts to water resources if we can. If that’s not possible, we will work to mitigate any impacts, often going above and beyond what is required if there is a cost-effective way to get that done,” explained Brandon Walls, a project manager in the water resources section of the Iowa DOT’s Location and Environment Bureau.

“In a nutshell, it means we can’t avoid impacts to water resources in the construction area, so we make up for the damage to the wetlands or streams in the construction area somewhere else,” he said.

Walls pointed to an Iowa DOT-constructed wetland mitigation site near Steamboat Rock in Hardin County as an example of the agency’s mitigation efforts. That site, called Hoover Ruby Wildlife Area, is owned by the Hardin County Conservation Board and was constructed to offset wetland impacts associated with two U.S. 69 Bridge replacement projects in Wright and Hancock counties.

“Because the impacted areas contained both emergent and forested wetlands, we [Iowa DOT] were responsible for re-creating those types of wetlands in this area owned by Hardin County,” he noted.

“We also work with the Army Corps of Engineers on mitigation sites to ensure we are developing enough wetland areas of a certain quality to meet the permit requirements,” Walls pointed out. “This specific permit required us to build 1.76 acres of emergent wetland and 0.4 acres of forested wetland, but we thought it was necessary to go beyond those baseline requirements to provide an area that would be more useful.”

He said that a successful forested wetland can be particularly challenging to reconstruct. Although the emergent wetland at Steamboat Rock is thriving, the trees originally planted in the forested wetland portion didn’t survive after they were planted, so Walls and his team engaged in a second round of seedling planting.

[Editor’s note: The Wyoming Department of Transportation is engaged in a similar wetlands restoration effort as part of its Snake River channel project.]

“We’re trying to keep as much of this work in-house to replant the forested wetland so we can to keep the costs down,” he explained. “We worked with the State Forest Nursery to get seedlings, which cost less than $300. I asked for volunteers from our bureau to help me plant the seedlings. Nine of us planted 225 trees of four species that like to have their feet wet.”

In another cost-saving measure, Walls and the team recycled tree tubes used to support the young saplings and protect them from being eaten by deer. “The saplings are very small and hard to see,” he added. “We went out and collected protective tubes from another wetland mitigation site that had grown up enough to not need them anymore.”

Walls will be responsible for monitoring this site for the next few years to make sure it succeeds and grows into a successful wetland area. “I have trail cameras out there and one of the coolest things I’ve seen is a pair of Sand Hill Cranes,” he said. “They haven’t been spotted much in Hardin County, so seeing them use our site is exciting.”

Once the entire wetland is functioning as it should, the Hardin County Conservation Board will take over the monitoring and maintenance long-term. “This is going to be a really nice resource for the public to hunt and view wildlife,” Walls noted.

Video: How KYTC Biologists Restore Streams, Wetlands

A recent video released by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet highlights how the agency’s biologists work to restore and improve streams and wetlands involved in state transportation projects.

[Above image via KYTC]

KYTC has worked closed with the Federal Highway Administration as well as other federal, state, and local agencies to identify and resolve environmental challenges on transportation projects. That results in more efficient environmental processes, thereby reducing time and funds to be expended on transportation projects, noted KYTC. 

KYTC noted that it works with a wide range of groups to tackle such mitigation projects, including the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, the American Indian Tribal Outreach program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others. Each of those “partnering efforts” discusses particular challenges common to transportation projects and provide resolutions beneficial to the environment.

State departments of transportation across the country tap into a variety of “biological resources” to minimize the environmental impact of infrastructure projects under their purview.

For example the Arizona Department of Transportation detailed in April 2022 how “biomonitor” teams from Northern Arizona University or NAU help the agency’s crews find and relocate endangered species – including snakes, birds and fish – from construction sites.

Specifically, those biomonitor teams train construction workers and others involved in transportation projects to identify any endangered species and what to do if they come across one. The teams also monitor construction activity and help safely remove any endangered species out of harm’s way.

Meanwhile, July and August every year, the North Carolina Department of Transportation temporarily lowers speed limits from 55 mph to 20 mph on the William B. Umstead Bridge – locally known as the old Manns Harbor Bridge – at dusk and dawn during the roosting period of purple martin bird flocks.

NCDOT noted in August 2022 that it has collaborated with the Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society since 2007 to educate the public about the purple martin flocks, to protect both the birds and motorists.

From late July through August, the west end of the bridge becomes home to as many as 100,000 purple martins as they prepare for their annual migration to Brazil. The birds roost under the bridge at night, departing at dawn to feed and returning at sunset. The flock is so large during its peak that it is visible on radar.

FHWA Helps Initiate $1B Fish Passage Program

The Federal Highway Administration, along with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, recently made $1 billion in grants available over the next five years via a new “fish passage” program established by the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA enacted in November 2021.

[Above photo by the WSDOT]

Formally entitled the “National Culvert Removal, Replacement and Restoration-Culvert Aquatic Organism Passage” program, it seeks to help communities remove and repair culverts found under roads that can prevent fish passage. FHWA said the program’s aim is to help state, local, and tribal governments protect local economies that count on healthy fisheries while also making key roads less prone to flooding.

“Many tribal and underserved coastal communities depend on thriving fish populations for their livelihoods, and this program, which will remove, replace, and repair harmful culverts, will improve the natural environment and the economic wellbeing of Tribal, coastal, and low-lying communities,” said Stephanie Pollack, FHWA’s acting administrator, in a statement.

“[These] grants will both help restore fish populations and make roads more durable and resilient to climate events, creating cascading benefits for communities that rely on the fisheries economy,” she added.

The agency explained that barriers to freshwater migration are a major cause of declining populations of anadromous fish, which live primarily in the ocean, but return to freshwater streams to spawn. This fish passage program seeks to help remove or redesign culverts and “weirs” that create such barriers, allowing anadromous fish populations – including salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, shad, and river herring – to access freshwater habitats for spawning.

FHWA noted that a “weir” allows for the controlled passage of water over a low-headed dam, while a culvert allows for the subterranean passage of water through a channel underneath an obstacle, such as a road.

Tribes, state, and local governments can apply for a portion of the $196 million of fiscal year 2022 funding currently available through this new program via a notice of funding opportunity issued by FHWA on October 6.

Across the country, state departments of transportation regularly provide support to a wide variety of efforts aimed at protecting numerous wildlife species and their habitats – such as birds, pollinating insects, bats, cactus, and of course fish.

For example, the Arizona Department of Transportation recently illustrated in an April blog post how ‘biomonitor’ teams from Northern Arizona University or NAU help the agency’s crews find and relocate endangered species – including snakes, birds, and fish – from construction sites.

Specifically, those biomonitor teams train construction workers and others involved in transportation projects to identify any endangered species and what to do if they come across one. The teams also monitor construction activity and help safely remove any endangered species out of harm’s way.

In terms of fish protection, the Washington State Department of Transportation went so far as to build an “engineered creek” to provide a better and safer avenue to spawning areas.

The engineered creek includes native vegetation, strategic bends, and elevation changes designed to support “every life cycle of fish,” WSDOT explained. It features places for fish to lay eggs and hide from predators, allowing the salmon to “naturally move” from freshwater to saltwater habitats and back again.

Maryland DOT, USACE Join Forces on Chesapeake Bay Project

The Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Transportation recently signed a Project Partnership Agreement or PPA to work together on the $4 billion Mid-Chesapeake Bay ecosystem restoration project.

[Pictured left to right in photo above: William Doyle; director of the Maryland Port Administration; Maryland DOT Secretary James Ports, Jr.; and Colonel Estee Pinchasin, USACE Baltimore District commander. Photo by the USACE.]

The PPA outlines the roles, responsibilities, and financial obligations of both partners for the restoration of both James and Barren islands in Dorchester County, beneficially re-using material dredged from the Port of Baltimore approach channels and the Honga River, respectively.

The Mid-Bay project includes restoration of 2,072 acres of lost remote island habitat on James Island and 72 acres of remote island habitat on Barren Island. Habitat may include submerged aquatic vegetation, mudflat, low marsh, high marsh, islands, ponds, channels, and upland areas.

USACE said it received more than $80 million in funding from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in November 2021 to complete the design and preconstruction activities for this project.

Based on the current schedule, Barren Island may start to accept dredged material as early as 2024 with James Island accepting material sometime in 2030 after finishing construction of dredged material containment facilities at each location.

The Mid-Bay project should wrap up in 2067 – providing more than 40 years of capacity to place almost 100 million cubic yards of dredged material, USACE said.

“It’s an honor to sign this agreement signifying ‘all systems go’ for this critically important project that will provide so many environmental benefits for Maryland,” said Maryland DOT Secretary James Ports Jr., in a statement.

“Rebuilding James and Barren islands will promote wildlife, restore coastal shorelines, and provide us with a long-term placement site for dredged material from port shipping channels, allowing us to accommodate larger ships bringing more cargo and business to Maryland,” he said.

Every year, USACE dredges nearly five million cubic yards of material from the channels and anchorages serving the Port of Baltimore to maintain current depths and widths for safe navigation. Once removed, the material must be contained or disposed of in an environmentally conscious manner.

“With this project, we hope to build upon the success of Poplar Island,” said Col. Pinchasin. “The habitat we restored and created using dredged material is flourishing.”

“We are very excited to work closely with Col. Pinchasin and her outstanding team at the Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, on this legacy initiative,” added MPA Director William Doyle.

Concurrently, Governor Larry Hogan (R) announced a “historic agreement” to advance a major dredging project at the Port of Salisbury, with dredged material supporting wildlife habitats near that port.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

A new memorandum of understanding between Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Wicomico County will provide for 137,000 cubic yards of material dredged from the port for re-use to benefit over 70 acres on DNR’s Deal Island Wildlife Management Area.

That material will help restore wetlands, preserve natural habitats, and protect infrastructure along the Manokin River to keep pace with rising sea levels.

“The dredging material will be beneficially used and re-used, and the project will provide for local wetlands restoration, and the creation of vital wildlife habitat,” the governor said in a statement. “I want to thank our team at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, along with our partners in Wicomico County, the City of Salisbury, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for working together toward this collaborative solution.”

“As the second largest port in our state, the Port of Salisbury is critically important to our economy, and was at risk due to a severe need for dredging,” said DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddway-Riccio. “This unique partnership is allowing us to complete this necessary project while using the dredge material to the benefit of our wetlands and wildlife.”

NCDOT Hydraulics Unit Wins Water Quality Award

The hydraulics unit of the North Carolina Department of Transportation recently won a 2022 Pelican Award from the North Carolina Coastal Federation for its efforts to both protect and improve coastal water quality.

[Above photo by NCDOT]

The Pelican Award honors volunteers, businesses, agencies, and organizations that go “above and beyond” to ensure a healthy North Carolina coast for future generations.

The Federation commended the NCDOT team – one of three winners of Pelican wards this year – for its dedicated advancement of nature-based resilience initiatives, such as its work on the living shoreline project along N.C. 24. That project is part of NCDOT’s effort to make more than 500 miles of coastal roads resilient to storms using nature-based solutions.

“The [NCDOT hydraulics] unit is on the cutting edge of research and advancement of effective stormwater management,” the Federation said in a press release about the 2022 Pelican Award winners.

The Hydraulics Unit has collaborated with the N.C. Coastal Federation for more than 20 years on various projects and educational opportunities.

“We both want to protect our environment, ensure our economy is thriving, and ensure those special areas of our state where people want to visit, work, and play remain accessible,” said NCDOT Hydraulics Engineer Stephen Morgan in a statement.

The unit also received recognition for helping develop the “nature-based” Stormwater Strategies Action Plan released by the Federation and The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2021.

“I want to thank the great work of my staff, who – alongside our partners at the Federation – leveraged resources, expertise, and educational opportunities to make our projects truly successful for all involved,” NCDOT’s Morgan said. “We were very excited to receive the Pelican Award and look forward to continuing our efforts with this important work.”

Louisiana DOTD Wins Award for Brine Management

Scott Boyle (seen above), assistant administrator of operations for District 2 of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, recently received an award on behalf of his district’s handling of brine disposal.

[Above photo by the Louisiana DOTD. Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng (at left) presents a ‘Certificate of Merit’ to Louisiana DOTD’s Scott Boyle.]

Louisiana DOTD’s District 2 received the 2022 Environmental Leadership Award from the Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs for its efforts to dispose of excess brine used in winter road clearing operations to minimize the impact on the local water table.

In January, in preparation for an anticipated ice storm in the greater New Orleans area, Louisiana DOTD produced nearly 1,800 gallons of brine to combat ice on the region’s most critical roads and bridges. However, once the weather event was over, a surplus of brine remained.

“In the past, we have tried to store the brine in stationary tanks, but algae growth and the degradation of the solution from heat and sunlight prevented us from re-using the brine for future winter events,” said Boyle in a statement. “Knowing that this material needed to be disposed of responsibly, we contacted the Jefferson Parish Storm Water Management team for guidance.”

Louisiana DOTD then worked with the Jefferson Parish Bridge City Wastewater Treatment Plant – located next to District 2’s headquarters – to dispose of the brine. The mixture was disposed of on a drying bed located on the treatment plant property, filtering out a portion of the salt before introducing the salted water into the plant slowly so it would not shock or upset the wastewater treatment process.

According to Jefferson Parish, these awards recognize those individuals, businesses, or organizations that strive for environmental leadership through programs and actions that improve stormwater quality and/or quantity, thereby reducing the amount of pollution that enters Jefferson Parish waterways.
“It is an honor and a privilege to be recognized for our partnership with Jefferson Parish as [Louisiana] DOTD ensures that we are doing our part to improve our surrounding waterway quality,” Boyle said. “Actions can have significant impacts on the region that we love to live and play in.”

Caltrans Highlights Key Stormwater Pollutants

As part of its “Let’s Change This to That” public education campaign, the California Department of Transportation is highlighting the top six sources of stormwater pollution across the state as well as ways to prevent them from contaminating California’s waterways.

[Above photo by Caltrans]

The agency manages stormwater runoff and mitigates potential pollution within its 350,000 acres of right of way, which includes more than 15,000 centerline miles of highways. This effort involves picking up roadside litter and clearing out storm drains to preserve roadway safety and drivability during all types of weather conditions.

Unlike water that goes down the sink or toilet in a home, Caltrans said stormwater is untreated and flows directly into lakes, rivers, and other waterways.

The agency noted that as stormwater travels into storm drains, it captures pollutants from highways, streets, sidewalks, and yards that flow into waterways. The top six pollutants have an outsized impact on the water quality of lakes, rivers, streams, and the ocean, and many are preventable through small actions Californians can take:

  • Trash and litter: Properly secure items in truck beds and put trash and recycling in the correct bin.
  • Sediments: Prevent soil erosion by using mulch in the garden, planting trees and shrubs, and sweeping driveways instead of hosing them off.
  • Nutrients: Avoid over-fertilizing lawns and plants and limit vegetation waste by keeping fallen leaves out of storm drains.
  • Bacteria: Limit pet and Recreational Vehicle or RV waste by picking up after your pet and using appropriate RV dumping stations.
  • Metals: Regularly check tire pressure, change oil and fluids, and use commercial car washes to prevent metals generated from vehicle, tire, and brake wear from ending up on highways.
  • Pesticides: Use organic pesticides and properly dispose of unused portions.

“Preventing stormwater pollution requires the help and support of every Californian, and it starts with keeping highways and roadways clean,” noted Steven Keck, acting director at Caltrans, in a statement.

“Californians must work together to take necessary steps to prevent pollution at the source and keep our waterways clean,” he said.

With the intensify drought conditions predicted to increase statewide this year, Caltrans noted it is amplifying water quality as a top priority.

During a drought, the state’s lakes, rivers, and streams have lower water levels, which leads to a higher concentration of pollutants. By preventing a buildup of metals, trash, and other pollutants on highways and roadways in dry conditions, Californians can help keep pollutants from traveling into local waterways during rainstorms.

Tennessee DOT Helping Deploy ‘Seabins’ for River Cleanup

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has teamed up with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful (KTRB) and other partners to establish a network of 17 “Seabin” automated litter and debris removal devices across the Tennessee River watershed.

[Above photo by the Seabin Project]

Seabin devices work continuously to skim and collect marine debris from the surface of the water. Each receptacle can remove up to 3,000 pounds of marine debris annually, while also filtering out gasoline, oils, and “micro-plastics” from the water.

Grants from the Tennessee DOT and the national Keep America Beautiful organization provided the funds supporting this deployment of the Seabin devices.

The Tennessee DOT’s contribution includes the purchase and installation of 10 devices at locations throughout Tennessee, as well as funding for two years of water-based cleanups of the river and its tributaries within the state – funding made in conjunction with the agency’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter prevention campaign.

“[Our] partnership with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful demonstrates the link between roadside litter and debris that ends up in our waterways,” explained Joseph Galbato, Tennessee DOT interim commissioner, in a statement. “Investing in this substantial network of litter removal devices is another example of how TDOT promotes innovative solutions to making our state cleaner and keeping our waterways clear.”

In addition to the 17 Seabins deployed in Tennessee, another two will deploy on the Tennessee River in Alabama, with one other placed on one of the river’s tributaries in North Carolina.

“Until now, all of our work has only been able to prevent micro-plastics in our waterways, so we are thrilled to the Tennessee DOT and Keep America Beautiful for these – as I see it – revolutionary grants and to our partners who will be maintaining the Seabins to make this trailblazing project possible,” added Kathleen Gibi, KTRB’s executive director.

The Tennessee DOT is an agency known for funding different and innovative ways to reduce littering.

For example, in April 2021, the agency helped fund a pair of new exhibits at the Tennessee Aquarium illustrate how micro-plastics and other roadside trash can negatively affect the health of the ocean as well as rivers, lakes, and streams.

The new exhibits – housed in the Aquarium’s “River Journey” and supporting the Tennessee DOT’s “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” litter reduction campaign – include actual debris taken from the banks of the Tennessee River: the focus of its current Seabin deployment project.

AASHTO Comments on Latest Proposed WOTUS Revisions

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials submitted a seven-page letter on February 2 to the Department of the U.S. Army and the Office of Water Oceans, Wetlands, and Communities Division within the Environmental Protection Agency to comment on the latest proposed revisions to Waters of the United States or WOTUS regulations.

[Above photo by the Ohio DOT]

The foremost concern expressed by AASHTO in its letter focused on the “need to clarify the standards used for determining the jurisdictional status of roadside ditches” so that the latest proposed WOTUS rule changes “clearly exclude” the overwhelming majority of roadside ditches.

“Unlike previous iterations of regulations defining WOTUS for which the agencies extended the public comment period, this proposed rule makes numerous changes to the pre-2015 definition of WOTUS, and relies on supporting documents including a 250-page Technical Support Document and 177-page Economic Analysis,” AASHTO emphasized. “But [it] does not give the public sufficient time to fully digest and understand the agencies’ proposal and submit comments.”

The debate over changes to WOTUS regulations spans several years. In September 2019, EPA and the Department of the Army – representing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – repealed and ended what they described as a “regulatory patchwork” that required implementing two competing sets of Clean Water Act rules, which created a regulatory burden across the United States, especially for transportation projects.

The EPA and Department of the Army published a proposed rule in February 2019 as part of the second step in this process – developing a new WOTUS definition that would “clearly define” where federal jurisdiction begins and ends in accordance with the Clean Water Act and Supreme Court precedent.

In that proposal, the agencies said at the time they would provide a “clear definition” of the difference between federally regulated waterways and those waters that rightfully remain solely under state authority.

EPA and the Department of the Army then published a final rule in April 2020 defining the scope of waters federally regulated under the Clean Water Act, while adhering to Congress’ policy directive to preserve states’ primary authority over land and water resources.

When that new final rule went into effect, it replaced the rule published in 2019 that formally repealed a regulatory effort initiated in 2015 to expand the WOTUS definition under the Clean Water Act.

However, the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – via a broad environmental directive issued by President Biden in January 2021 – began an entirely new WOTUS revision process in November 2021, first to repeal the 2020-era rule and then to design a brand new WOTUS regulatory framework.

The constant back-and-forth changes to WOTUS regulations are the main concern of AASHTO and state DOTs, as it impedes the ability to effectively plan transportation projects. 

“We caution that any final rule should truly be final, to the extent possible,” AASHTO said in its February 2 letter. “Frequent rule changes – especially of the magnitude characterizing the WOTUS definition – can be damaging to our members, because uncertainty has a substantial impact on transportation projects that often have a long lead time.”

AASHTO also expressed “concern” with the suggestion by the EPA and Department of the Army that an “anticipated second rule” would seek to “further refine” the test for WOTUS and “build upon the regulatory foundation” of the initial rule now being proposed.

“A second rule that does not focus solely on clearly defining WOTUS but instead introduces new concepts, standards, or requirements that go beyond the case law will increase the probability of confusion, additional lawsuits, and the need for additional changes in the future, further harming our members’ ability to plan for projects,” the organization said.

Maryland Works to Reduce Road Salt’s Environmental Impact

In conjunction with several state agencies, including the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is spearheading an effort to reduce the amount of salts entering rivers, streams, and groundwater while also ensuring roads remain safe for winter travel.

[Above photo by the Maryland DOT]

MDE has been working for several years with state agencies and local jurisdictions on new salt application strategies, including use of improved weather forecasting, using the right amount of salt, targeting roads in most need of treatment, using brine to reduce overall salt usage, and increasing training for employees and contracted equipment operators.

The agency noted that Maryland DOT’s State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) has used those and other strategies over the past five years to reduce its overall salt usage up to 50 percent.

MDOT SHA has moved to use salt brine – a liquid solution that is 22 percent salt and 78 percent water – before, during, and after winter weather events. Pre-treating roads with salt brine prevents the initial bonding of snow or ice, thus giving road crews time to mobilize. The agency now has two “tow plows” – separate plows towed behind a salt/plow truck to clear an additional travel lane – which enhance snow-clearing operations and reduce the need for road salting.

MDOT SHA has also designated salt brine-only routes for the duration of winter storms, resulting in less overall salt use when compared to routes where only rock salt is used. The agency pre-wets rock salt with salt brine to reduce the “bounce and scatter” effect of salt solids ricocheting off the highway.

MDOT SHA also works with weather forecasters to develop a treatment plan and employs more than 100 mobile infrared sensors at key locations, along with mobile sensors, to determine conditions and target its storm deployment – greatly contributing to salt reduction efforts.
“[We] congratulate and thank the Maryland Department of Transportation for leading by example when it comes to reducing the use of road salts that can threaten public health and our environment,” said Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, in a statement.

While sodium chloride or salt is effective, relatively inexpensive, readily available, and easily stored, it can destroy a soil’s structure and cause erosion, damage, and kill vegetation, while contributing to the corrosion of metal bridges and motor vehicles, MDE said. It can also seep into groundwater and runoff into surface waters, contaminating wildlife habitats and potentially affecting drinking water.

The agency noted it has increased monitoring for sodium chloride in the environment to gain information to help develop restoration plans. However, MDE noted that once salt has entered the environment there is no effective way to remove it. Thus, the best solution is a widespread, decreased use of road salt, it noted.