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Effects of culvert construction on streams and macroinvertebrate communities at selected sites in the East Gulf Coastal Plain of Alabama, 2010–19

October 25, 2021

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Alabama Department of Transportation, evaluated the role of culvert construction in altering streams and habitats of benthic macroinvertebrate communities at selected study sites in the northern East Gulf Coastal Plain of Alabama during 2011–19. Analysis included examinations of changes in stream channel geometry, suspended sediment, turbidity, and benthic macroinvertebrate communities.

Topographic surveys of stream channel cross sections, upstream and downstream of the culvert, were conducted before and after construction. Changes in channel geometry (cross-sectional area, top width, mean depth, and thalweg slope) were assessed by using paired sample t-tests to compare before- and after-construction channel geometry measurements. Statistically significant changes in stream channel geometry between the before- and after-construction measurements were observed at four of the six study sites. Analysis of the channel geometry data indicates that 1 site had no measured changes, and thalweg reach slopes were inverted at 4 of the 12 study reaches—2 measured in before-construction reaches and 2 measured in after-construction reaches.

Surface-water samples were collected during selected storm events for suspended sediment and turbidity analyses. Samples were simultaneously collected upstream and downstream of the culvert construction reaches during all three phases of construction (before, during, and after). Analysis focused on the parity of upstream to downstream simultaneous samples. The mean upstream to downstream paired ratios of sediment concentrations and turbidity from the after-construction phase indicate that colloidal and noncolloidal sediments were passing through the construction reaches at two of the six sites, noncolloidal sediments were being trapped in the construction reaches at two sites, and colloidal and noncolloidal sediments were being removed from the construction reach at two sites.

Benthic macroinvertebrates were collected and identified at five of the six sites from instream habitats that were available in sampled areas both upstream and downstream of the culvert construction reaches. Differences between upstream and downstream reaches and the Wilcoxon rank sum statistic were used to examine changes in metrics of benthic macroinvertebrate communities between before- and after-construction phases. Benthic macroinvertebrate sampling results did not indicate that culvert construction caused impairment to communities at study sites. No tolerance metrics suggested a major change in the pollution tolerance of the communities. The same upstream to downstream patterns in abundance-weighted tolerance values were observed in the before- and after-construction periods at each site. At one site, the difference between upstream and downstream richness-based tolerance values increased, but the after-construction upstream and downstream richness-based tolerance values were lower (indicating a less pollution-tolerant macroinvertebrate community) than in the before-construction period.