The land around Gustavus in Southeast Alaska doesn’t stay still. It’s constantly rising from what’s known as isostatic rebound. Basically, as a nearby glacier retreats, the pressure on the land lessens and it rises. The land in Gustavus is rising faster than anywhere else in the world – about an inch a year.
“And it’s been doing that for 200 and whatever years,” said Mike Halbert, longtime fishing guide in Gustavus.
Since the mid-1700s, to be more precise.
“I’ve been fishing there for 30 years,” Halbert said. “So yeah, I’ve seen three, 4 or 5 feet of difference, and you can see it on charts since it was charted in the 60s.”
The rising land is one reason the federal government spent the last decade fixing eight bridges over the Good River near Gustavus, and its tributaries. The project has finally come to a close, and it should help juvenile fish maneuver through the waterway. The funding for the project comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish Passage Program which received $3.5 million for Alaska projects in last year’s federal infrastructure law.
The Good River runs from Glacier Bay National Park to Icy Strait. In recent decades, while the land continued to rise, so did the metal culverts. But the streams kept cutting into the land, causing the culverts to overhang the water. That’s a problem when they’re home to salmon, dolly varden and cutthroat trout.
“If the water where it came out of the culvert, if it was creating a waterfall, [USFWS] considered a hindrance for the young coho to move upstream, they’d be reluctant to jump like the adults,” Halbert said.
Halbert says the Good River doesn’t have a lot of fish in it. It isn’t nearly as big as the nearby Salmon River where most locals and tourists go. The Good River is small and runs along roads, past town, and through a mud flat.
Another local fly-fishing guide, Natalie Vax, says mostly kids fish the Good River for salmon and trout.
“Kids catching cutthroats and dollies and pinks and silvers on that little culvert side ditch thing on the side of the main road, but it is not a ton,” she said. “There are a few spots where sometimes fish do gather.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes the new bridges will allow more fish to spawn in the smaller stream.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Shannon Estenoz, oversees fish, wildlife and parks.
“These projects are all about kind of what the name suggests — removing barriers to flow, removing barriers to fish passage, often updating, you know, either outdated or malfunctioning infrastructure that are impeding fish passage,” said Estenoz.
Estenoz is a civil engineer. She says when engineers are designing infrastructure like culverts and bridges, they can’t always predict what will happen decades later. Sometimes the material fails or outlives its useful life.
But the fish passage projects aren’t just about saving fish, she says.
“They often fix multiple problems at once,” Estenoz said. “I’m finding as I’m traveling across the country, that we might be helping fish, but we’re often also improving flood protection — we’re making it safer for folks to paddle the river to, you know, fish on the river. And apparently, this has been an ancillary benefit for the Good River as well.”
Fishing guide Mike Halbert doesn’t see the local bridges making much difference for his industry but he says it’s a huge improvement for traffic across the waterways. And he says it’s also provided jobs for road workers building the bridges.
“Obviously, the people that are working on the construction, it was a big benefit,” Halbert said.
The infrastructure law included $600,000 for the Good River’s final bridge. The entire fish passage project totaled $1.76 million.
Other fish passage projects in Alaska that received federal infrastructure funding included $1.3 million for the Little Tonsina River in the Valdez-Cordova Borough and $1.6 million for the Tyonek Creek on the Kenai Peninsula.