Culvert research aims to protect endangered small fish

The Topeka shiner
The Topeka shiner, a small minnow that inhabits slow-moving prairie streams, was once widespread and abundant in portions of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota. It now inhabits less than 10 percent of its original geographic range.
(Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

In a new study funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, engineers are trying to ensure that new culverts do not degrade the habitat of an endangered fish in southern Minnesota.

The state has already researched how to better accommodate fish passage at river and stream crossings. Now it is looking at design guidelines for culverts that specifically impact the Topeka shiner, a small endangered fish found in five Midwestern states.

In Minnesota, the Topeka shiner is known to live in at least 57 streams, totaling 605 miles, within the Big Sioux and Rock River watersheds.

“The Topeka shiner is reported to have been erased from about 50 percent of its historic range in Iowa and much of its range in Minnesota, which is why Minnesota is so intent on doing what it can to help this fish thrive here,” said Alan Rindels, MnDOT’s project coordinator for the research.

The Topeka shiner is endangered due to the degradation of stream habitat, stream channelization, non-native predatory fishes and construction within waterways.

Culverts might impede the passage of this small minnow for a number of reasons, including that they might be too long, lack sufficient depth or carry water too fast.

Culverts allow water to pass under roads.
Culverts (also called small bridges) allow water to pass under roads. Occasionally, they can harm a stream’s fish habitat by inadvertently acting as a barrier to fish passage or migration. On the West Coast, large-scale efforts are under way to protect migratory salmon, and in Minnesota, culvert designers are concerned about fresh water species.

In addition, long culverts block sunlight, which possibly discourages fish from swimming through. Typically, older culverts are replaced with longer culverts to improve road safety and minimize maintenance costs. To eliminate or minimize impacts to the Topeka shiner, the state is trying to determine if light mitigation strategies are necessary.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Research Laboratory will monitor a newly installed culvert (110 feet in length) and a few other culverts in critical Topeka shiner habitat streams during spawning and fall movement.

Additionally, a laboratory-based light manipulation experiment will examine the behavior of the warm-water fish when presented with a dark culvert.

Guidelines for culvert design in Topeka shiner habitat will be developed based on these results, as well as examples from neighboring states. The state is also collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and affected Minnesota counties.

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