Culvert cleaning

Opening the culvert pipe during a rainfall. (Photo by Patti Johnson)

In the event of thunderstorms and torrential rains, check that the culvert is open and the gush of runoff water is flowing unobstructed through the pipe!

And because of the changing climate, we are now frequently beset by thunderstorms and torrential rains. Twice in the past few years floods have seriously damaged the culvert – the embankment that spans a steep and narrow water course on the south edge of our farm, the base for the first 20 yards of our driveway. We have learned from harsh experience to check the opening of the culvert’s corrugated steel pipe immediately after a rainstorm (and sometimes during a rainstorm) to make certain it is not blocked by debris which causes the flood water to pool in the catch basin and wash across the top of the embankment.

Opening up a clogged culvert pipe is a slippery, wet, muddy, laborious, and sweaty chore, but it is preferable to hiring an excavator for $400 to reach into a 16-foot-deep pool of dammed-up flood water to unplug the pipe. Although, admitted, it’s not nearly as exciting, especially during a deluge of rain in the dark of night. The power of trapped water is amazing.

Wear rubber boots. This morning I did not, because I did not expect the pipe to be blocked after the drought-ending five or six inches of rainfall we had had in the past week. Wrong. We looked down into the catch pool and could see the mass of rubble that was clogging the mouth of the 36-inch pipe. Damn. Just—DAMN!

I slipped and slid down the sheer side of the embankment and made my way to the opening of the pipe that was still flowing but was partially blocked by sticks, brush, branches, logs, mud, silt, and slime. And a few good-sized slabs of limestone. Fifteen minutes of work and the tangle was cleared. All the junk and rubble made a wonderfully satisfying noise as it clattered through the corrugated pipe, swept along by the surge of water.

Then it was just a matter of escaping the pit, climbing out of the steep-sided catch basin. I lost my footing near the top but was able to steady myself by grabbing hold of a thick stand of stinging nettle. Damn. Just – DAMN!

For more than 30 years the culvert was more-or-less maintenance free, but the annual 50 inches of precipitation of the past few years has changed the physical character of the ravine on the south edge of our property. Our part of the North Country was once blessed with 34 to 36 inches of precipitation through an entire year. We almost never had a storm that dumped two or three-inches of rain on this landscape in an hour or two. Now we have those storms all the time. Climate change.

The problem was exacerbated by a neighboring farmer who wanted to gain another three or four acres of row crop ground by tearing out a strip of woodland and bulldozing the broken trees and brush to the edge of the ravine – which is rock-faced and steep and only about a half mile in length. Each downpour brings a load of this debris down through the ravine to clog our culvert.

Part of that tangle is from our side of the ravine, of course, since springs and seeps and marshy grounds have appeared where none previously existed, the result of saturated soil and subterranean water flowage. This “new normal” of the water table requires that we rush to check the culvert whenever we have one of those lashing rainstorms.

We have had an excavator deepen the catch basin from about 12 feet to 16 feet, rip-rapped the steep banks as best we can, and laid big chunks of rock and broken concrete around the mouth of the pipe. But there is only so much we can do. If the red weather gods loosen a four or five-inch cloudburst over the course of a couple hours, it’s time to plunge back into the pit to prevent surge-borne junk from blocking the pipe, filling the catch basin, and flooding over the embankment.

It is the hazardous duty required of us for the enjoyment of living in the North Country. And although it can be nasty work, I think it’s kind of fun. Because, you know, there’s an element of danger involved. Especially when you are crawling through the culvert pipe to clear it. Ummm – maybe don’t mention to my wife that I sometimes crawl through the culvert pipe, okay?



About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to Culvert cleaning

  1. Hi, Jerry – Great piece. I can relate. Versions of this problem on every piece of land I know and care about mix in my mind with the childhood thrill of unblocking creeks and gutters after rain. Climate change and land management – a rich and necessary and complex matrix, indeed. – Amy

    • For many reasons, some valid and some not, we have built dams across water courses all over this country. Now, with climate change, we are rethinking their purpose are taking many out. A greater problem is the tiling out of row crop fields, a practice that rushes runoff water into our streams and is a major cause of flooding.

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