To the casual observer, the construction project on the road that crosses Phinney's Bay and leads to Dowse's Beach in Barnstable, Mass., probably looked like nothing more than another road repair effort in advance of the busy Cape Cod tourist season. In reality, the project had implications on infrastructure replacement and environmental improvement that resonate with public works departments throughout Massachusetts and across the country.
The ostensible goal of the Phinney's Bay project is to replace two concrete pipes beneath the beach access road with a precast concrete box culvert. The impetus, however, is not just infrastructure that is failing or in disrepair—the primary driver of the project is to improve the environmental quality of the upstream wetlands area that has been degraded by restricted tidal flow.
“There's a real push in the state of Massachusetts to do salt marsh restoration projects,” said John Jacobsen, public works director for Barnstable. “It results from undersized pipes that choke off the flow to the salt marsh. The water quality has been severely degraded over time.”
Projects like the one in Phinney's Bay are happening all over Massachusetts, in other coastal states, and even in inland states for the purpose of restoring wildlife habitats degraded by river crossings. What many public works departments may not be aware of is that they are not the only entities interested in replacing the infrastructure. Projects like this represent a unique partnership opportunity among local entities, conservation boards, and state and federal agencies—and forging those bonds to pursue them could potentially open previously untapped sources of funding.
SUCCESS ON TWO FRONTS
It's a chicken-or-the-egg kind of problem, but the right solution can have unforeseen benefits for everyone involved: A public works department determines that a culvert is approaching the end of its usefulness. Meanwhile, the state's conservation department independently determines that the marsh area the culvert feeds has a tidal restriction that's degrading the water quality and threatening the habitat. In both cases, the solution is that the culvert needs to be replaced.
The question is, which came first? The answer is that it doesn't matter—and in fact, the ideal scenario is that both situations get discovered simultaneously, and the different entities collaborate on a mutually beneficial solution.
“Because there often is environmental degradation associated with these crossings, there are resources available to help towns fix these problems,” said Hunt Durey, manager of the Wetlands Restoration Program (WRP) of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. “There's a tremendous opportunity associated with infrastructure repair and replacement projects nationwide to achieve a win-win scenario of infrastructure improvement and environmental restoration.”
The mission of the WRP (www.mass.gov/czm/wrp) is to prompt any and all entities involved in coastal zone infrastructure projects—from public works departments to conservation managers to state and federal agencies—to work together to find that win-win scenario. “We work with DPWs (departments of public works) and many other partners to proactively restore degraded wetlands,” said Durey. “The proactive part is important, because it's all voluntary—none of them are tied to development. The vast majority of the projects focus on marshes that are restricted by undersized culverts.”
In essence, the WRP acts as the facilitator for such projects, available to help forge partnerships, secure funding, oversee project planning and implementation, and conduct community education and outreach on behalf of any project in the state's coastal zone that falls under its mission.
For public works departments, the WRP could be especially helpful in helping locate and secure funding, said Durey. The group has close ties to federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many others, not to mention dozens of state and local agencies. “Often, the majority of funding to replace a culvert can be obtained from outside sources,” said Durey.