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Water flows freely under a new bridge.
Information icon Gills Creek Drive crossing at Gills Creek after replacement Photo by USFWS.

Fish passage project benefits Carolina heelsplitter

In Lancaster County, South Carolina, more than three miles of critical habitat has been cleared for the Carolina heelsplitter, a mussel federally listed as endangered.

A mussel with streaks of brown, yellow, and green.
Carolina heelsplitter. Photo by USFWS.

The county is home to about one-third of the heelsplitter’s remaining occupied habitat. In South Carolina, the heelsplitter is only found in the Savannah, Saluda, Catawba and Pee Dee river systems in York, Lancaster, Chester, Kershaw, Chesterfield, Edgefield, McCormick, Greenwood, and Saluda Counties.

South Carolina’s Ecological Services Field Office has partnered with the Lancaster County Planning Department to identify road crossings in need of replacement. Once sites were identified, the Southeastern Region Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team turned plans into reality. Over the past five years, this team has completed three culvert replacements within occupied critical habitat for the heelsplitter in Gills Creek. In each case, multiple perched, round culverts were replaced with appropriately sized bottomless arch culverts.

Four metal culverts allow water to trickle under a road.
Gills Creek Drive crossing at Gills Creek prior to replacement, looking upstream. Photo by USFWS.

Finished just last month, the replacement at Gills Creek Drive has opened up an entire critical habitat unit to fish passage for the first time in over a decade. These culverts allow passage for the Carolina heelsplitter and its fish hosts, such as minnows and bluehead chubs.

Lancaster County has a couple of unique storm characteristics which contributed key ingredients to a winning recovery recipe. First, stream hydrology in the county is uncharacteristically flashy; even small storms lead to overtopped creeks and big flooding problems. Second, over the past decade or so, storms have undermined roads within heelsplitter habitat almost exclusively. Flooding washed out improperly designed road crossings, which led to the Service’s partnership with Lancaster County to replace the old road crossings with bottomless arch culverts that are beneficial to fish passage and aquatic ecosystem health.

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