When it comes to river restoration, haste makes waste

Anthony Iarrapino

In their rush to exploit recovery efforts from Tropical Storm Irene, ideologues who perpetually fight against regulation and science and who posture as the defenders of traditional “Yankee” values are forgetting two important rock-ribbed principles.

The first is frugality. There has been a lot of loose talk about how much money was supposedly saved by largely ignoring environmental review and permitting as bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks rushed into rivers across Vermont in dozens of places. Understandably, given the dire situation facing the state at the time, these claims are based on initial, back-of-the-envelope cost estimates made with little or no analysis. However, using those alleged savings to argue for a change in policy is irresponsible as a matter of policy, and discourteous to basic math.

The accounting trick the deregulation folks are trying to pull off ignores the near-term and future public and private costs that Vermonters will inevitably incur and in some cases are already incurring to fix the problems caused by hasty “restoration” that did more harm than good. The overall restoration effort was extraordinary, and the state’s road system has been rebuilt quickly. But as any old hill farmer can tell you, a quick repair is rarely the last fix you need, and haste, even when necessary, makes waste.

The second Yankee principle ignored by those who don’t want to let modern understandings of river physics, science-based laws and common sense stand in the way of their crusade against regulation is that we don’t solve our problems by pushing them on to our neighbors.

One of the purposes of the science-based river alteration regulations that have evolved in Vermont during the last few decades is to minimize and prevent flooding altogether rather than simply transfer problems onto neighboring properties. Mining gravel from the stream next to your house might prevent – for a time – your fields from flooding. But it increases the likelihood of your neighbor’s house getting washed away. Striking the balance calls for smart regulation such as Vermont has developed. To do river work right, is to do right by your neighbors.

And, although some would not have it so, those principles of true frugality, quality workmanship, and true community remain in Vermont, and must be restored along with our roads, homes, and towns.

Take for example the case of Camp Brook in hard-hit Bethel.  As reported in Sunday’s Times Argus and Rutland Herald (sorry I can’t link to the story it is behind a paywall), the bulldozers are back in the river.  But this time scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and volunteers from nonprofit White River Partnership are guiding their work closely.  You see, the bulldozers are there trying to fix the mess (likely made with the best of intentions) that the early recovery efforts made of the Brook; a mess that, according to the news report, actually increased the risk of flash flooding and threatens upstream and downstream bridges along Rt. 12 with erosion around their abutments and more intense flows from a river artificially straightened after Irene.  Here is an excerpt that sums up the status of the Brook as a result of the rush job:

“[N]o one in the excavators really knew what the brook had looked like before.  The valley was flattened.  Berms stood mid-slope.  Where the lawn had once been, the river now braided over dirt and rocks, with no banks to direct its flow.  There were no boulders or even large rocks to add burbles to its sound or prevent flash flooding.”

After weeks of careful remediation, the new science-guided effort is restoring Camp Brook to a healthy functioning stream with natural structures that will help prevent future flooding and restore habitat for fish.  Even though it’s buried in the back pages of the paper, it’s good news for people who care about protecting property and maintaining healthy streams.  It’s bad news for the deregulation crowd because it directly contradicts the claim that we can save money by gutting environmental regulations that require recovery work to be done carefully in a manner that is consistent with science-based state and federal laws. In the long run it is cheaper for us and for those downstream to do a job right the first time lest we keep having to relearn the lesson that haste makes waste.

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