Report From Montpelier
by Senator Dick McCormack (D-Windsor County)
The flood exposed some ongoing, underlying issues that will require the Legislature’s attention; most notably Vermont’s permitting process, especially regarding gravel extraction from our streams and the rip rapping of stream banks. Having had a taste of less regulation in the aftermath of the flood, some folks are reluctant to return regulatory power to the state.
Gravel and Rip Rap
Many Vermonters have long yearned for the “good old days” of unregulated gravel extraction, arguing that deeper central channels made narrower, deeper and thus colder rivers that made better fish habitats. Since the flood they also argue that the lack of such channels made The Flood worse. Having viewed the flood of the White River first hand from my home, and having seen the volume of water, as well as the speed and force of the current, I don’t think a deeper and narrower channel would have had the slightest effect on the flood’s destructiveness. Even if a deeper and narrower channel were to avoid flooding at a particular spot, the water and its destructive energy wouldn’t be dissipated but would simply be moved further downstream. I’m also convinced that, while rip rapping a stream bank may stabilize that specific bank, this too simply moves the destruction downstream.
But, that said, as a representative legislator I can’t ignore the intensity of my constituents’ convictions. While I’m inclined to trust the state’s expert scientists, I think the people who live along our streams probably know something based upon experience and day to day observation. And they make points that are hard to refute. Our streams have not been in a natural state for two and a half centuries. A policy of “letting rivers find their way” allows unnaturally graveled rivers to find their way. As a Rochester selectman once said to me, “all we want is to take our own road gravel back.” Certainly it makes sense to remove gravel that is unnatural to begin with, especially when it threatens unwanted effects such as redirecting water against a stream bank that protects a road or a home.
The issue of gravel extraction is a matter of physics and engineering. But the discussion also involves culture and political perception. The vocabulary is telling. “Montpelier won’t let us take gravel out.” “Montpelier” against “Us.” In theory Montpelier IS us. We the People govern ourselves through our government in Montpelier. But the vocabulary indicates that at least some folks see their own state government as something alien, even something hostile. After we’ve fixed the roads, financially aided the victims, cleaned up the debris, and paid the bills, this sense of alienation from “Montpelier” will still undermine the democratic sprit of some of our people. The least the Legislature owes people is to give them a hearing.
The Legislature needs to take a hard look, and an open-minded look, at our gravel extraction policy. We need to listen to people who disagree with the policy and we need to challenge our experts to respond. Without prejudging the question, I don’t anticipate sweeping changes. As frustrating as many folks find our gravel policies, those policies are based on serious science. But at the very least the state has done an inadequate job of explaining the science and the resulting policy to the public. We need the conversation.
In fact Vermont has never forbidden all gravel extraction. We permit some gravel extraction from some locales when it makes sense and when it’s done right. We need to consider whether or not we need to be more flexible about those specific instances. Again, I don’t prejudge. But if we don’t allow more flexibility, we need to do a better job of explaining why.
Permitting in General Besides gravel extraction and rip rapping, we also need to look at the larger regulatory regime. Faced with an emergency, the state waived many regulations. Some folks argue that the fast recovery of our roads at a lower cost than expected proves that regulation is unnecessary. The counter to this argument is that regulations were waived because of an emergency and that the emergency is over. In this view it’s time to re-establish law and order. Regulations are there for good reasons. They protect real public interests. The fact that we found it necessary to sacrifice those public interests in an emergency doesn’t mean we should continue to sacrifice them.
But, as Machiavelli wrote, it’s easier to withhold a right and grant it later than to grant it and then repeal it later. As with gravel, the Legislature ought to at least give a fair hearing to the folks who oppose a return to regulation. I don’t anticipate supporting a wholesale abandonment of regulation, but the flood recovery presents a good opportunity to consider whether or not there are particular regulations that should be changed, whether or not there particular procedures that can be made more efficient.
I hope this doesn’t turn into an ideological clash or a culture war of “greens vs. old boy,” “government bureaucrats vs. the private sector,” or “economic freedom vs. law and order.” The opportunities for hyperbole and oversimplification are dismaying. But I anticipate that the best policy will be achieved through a highly selective, fact based analysis of what we can actually learn from the recent experience. Just as we allow some gravel extraction from some places when done right, we may change some regulations. Or not. I haven’t heard the testimony yet.
Report From Montpelier