The Effects of Stream Crossings and Associated Road Approaches on Water Quality in the Virginia Piedmont

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Stream crossings are an integral component of forest road systems that provide access for timber harvesting and silvicultural activities. Stream crossings and their associated approaches are often the most critical point of concern for water quality along forest roads. Several types of crossings are used for extracting timber, but limited studies actually compare different types of stream crossings with regard to their effect on water quality. The objectives of this study were to examine four different stream crossing structures: 1) steel bridges, 2) pole bridges (pipe with poles), 3) standard culverts, and 4) re-enforced fords (with GeoWeb or Geotextile) to determine the influence of stream crossing type on water quality and to evaluate erosion associated with stream crossing approaches. We also evaluated each site at four different time intervals to determine if water quality was more affected during different stages of the operations. Prior to operational timber harvests, we identified six replications for each type of crossings (4 fords) and collected data at four time intervals: 1) prior to reopening or installation of crossing, 2) after crossing installation, 3) during harvest operation, and 4) after road closure. Potential erosion rates from approaches to the crossings were estimated by collecting the road/site information necessary to estimate erosion with the Water Erosion Prediction Project for forest roads (WEPP) and the forest version of the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE). In-stream water samples were collected at fixed locations above and below each crossing and were evaluated for total dissolved solids (TDS), pH, conductivity, water temperature, and total suspended solids (TSS) or sediment concentration.

Steel bridge crossings generally caused the least amount of water quality disturbance. Model-generated estimates of erosion demonstrated that culvert crossings were associated with the highest average soil loss potential. Although steel bridge crossings had the best overall results, pole bridges proved to be a viable option for ephemeral or intermittent streams due to low potential of soil loss. Ford crossings were found to impact water quality indicators, but showed a decrease in total dissolved solids (TDS) after installation, prior to harvest. Overall, the steel skidder bridges were generally the best crossing type, but any of the crossings can be used effectively with minimal impact under specific site conditions and with judicious installation, use, and closure. Road/skid trail location and adherence to existing road grade, water control, cover, and closure best management practices are critical for protection of water quality at stream crossings.



forestry best management practices, Piedmont, riparian forest, fords, bridges, pole crossings, culverts, Water quality, forest stream crossings