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The water is flowing and the culverts need clearing

Updated: Apr 29

By Charlie McCabe


I thought it might be good to talk about the coming of spring, with our snow and ice (in the Boston area) mostly melted and the first bulbs starting to push up out of the ground.


I'm a volunteer trail adopter at Middlesex Fells State Reservation, a portion of which is about a mile walk from my house. I volunteer through the program organized by the nonprofit partner to the Massachusetts Division of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) called Friends of the Fells. A few times a week, I'll put my work aside, change into work clothes, grab my tools, and walk the trails. Generally, I'm looking for things to take care of as outlined in our volunteer manual, such as trail hazards, trash, downed tree limbs, and flooding issues. With plenty of snow and rain this winter and early spring, we have flooding and increased erosion, with small ponds, streams, and creeks intersecting the Fells trails and many culverts (buried pipes made of clay or plastic) bisecting the trails, working to convey the water downstream. Mostly, late winter and early spring are pretty quiet, with views like the photo below...


These culverts or pipes clog with all sorts of debris—leaves, sticks, logs—all of which turn (ultimately) to muck and mud. The Fells has a lot of second growth forest and generates a lot of leaves every fall. I should have been paying more attention to clearing out openings in the late fall, as well as visiting some of the more far-flung areas of the Fells that I know are prone to flood . . . but paying work took priority, as it tends to do. It's still nice to be out and hiking through the late winter and early spring, carrying a pick and a rake, and it definitely provides some good cardio.


The process is pretty simple: Where there's a pond (or other frozen body of water), you'll eventually find an outlet with a culvert connection. It can take a while and in a number of cases, the snow must melt completely. But, the the goal is make sure water can flow into and out of both sides of the culvert. Sometimes the only way to clear it is with your hands. (I carry several pairs of heavy duty work gloves to aid in this effort.)

There are a few locations on my list that can get very clogged, resulting in flooding over a good portion of the trail. These areas have large culverts that need more regular maintenance. When we went through a big warm-up in early February, the trail had turned into a "river," as shown below.

Ordinarily, the creek or water is confined to the stream on the right side, but with the culvert completely clogged, it had greatly expanded. It took me two visits, but I discovered that the culvert opening was covered by a heavy flat rock one foot under water. On my second visit, I brought my pick and managed to divert much of the incoming water with a temporary rock dam, then use my pick to pry up the interfering rock bit by bit, shoving smaller rocks underneath. I soon heard a whooshing sound, which was water starting to enter the culvert. In another 30 or so minutes, I moved the rock fully out of the way and slowly took apart the temporary rock dam. When I checked it yesterday, all was still functioning well, as shown in the picture below.

Venturing out on the trail a few days a week isn't solving any grand issue, but it makes me feel good, and it's nice to be able to give back a bit to a place that provides a wonderful respite from the modern world.


© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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