9.30.2011

Gravel dredging in Vermont rivers .... today's WTF FAQ

It is, unquestionably, the biggest hot button topic in the state today.

If you want to fire up the coffee shop, stir up things at work, or get an earful from a bar full of locals, just start digging in to the topic of gravel dredging in Vermont's rivers.

In case you've been in the Red Sox dugout for the last 30 days, here’s how it went down. Vermont got hit by a hurricane. Vermont roads/homes/businesses got hammered. And so, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin “lifted the ban” on gravel dredging in the state’s rivers as way to speed and ease the cost of recovery.

I was there at one of the Governor's stumping stops, a week after the storm, covered with mud and sweat and fiberglass insulation like everybody else. Shumlin hopped up into the back of a flatbed in miked-up and neatly pressed shirt, and encouraged the crowd to “dig deep” in the river.

At the time, a few eyebrows went up. But people were busy doing the work that needed to be done, and the thought of a little digging in the river didn't freak anybody out, so things moved on.

Today, however, it’s a different story. Excavators and large-haul dump trucks are parked in riverbeds around the state. Gravel is being scooped out by the ton, banks are getting reinforced, and in many cases it’s happening in places which were totally unaffected by flooding during Hurricane Irene.

"It'd be one thing if this was going to prevent future flooding, but it's only going to make things worse," said one observer. "They're building gravel walls between the rivers and their natural floodplains, and that's only going to force the river to find new places to jump the bank."

The Burlington Free Press was the first to shine a spotlight on the issue (LINK), detailing a public meeting in Middlebury when a group of anglers stormed the session, demanding an immediate halt to things. Nothing did happen, of course, other than a stream of flaming comments that followed the BFP story … blasting the “treehuggers” for “putting the needs of fish ahead of people.”

It’s a funny day in Vermont when the hippies and the hook-and-bullet crowd are united around a common theme. But it’s happening.

From a common sense perspective, digging gravel out of Vermont rivers makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. There’s no doubt that a metric shit-ton of gravel made it’s way into local riverbeds following the big storm. So much so, in fact, that our local waterway -- the Mad River -- seemed practically motionless after the storm: it looked more like a big string lake than a meandering river.

And so, to prevent Vermont rivers from choosing new paths in the wrong places, a little digging seemed like a good idea. Plus, roads and foundations needed fill, and getting gravel in the state is already a bit of a pain in the ass, according to some. And that same pro-digging contingent often maintains that the fishing might even get better if Vermont digs deep in their rivers. It used to fish better, they say, back in the day when gravel dredging was allowed. So why not open things up again?

But there’s a distinct difference between spot dredging and a widespread free-for-all. And that line has clearly been crossed.

There is no statewide strategy for the digging, no oversight, and no end in sight. One letter circulating calls for the State to "get things under control" by providing strategy and statewide expertise from the Agency of Natural Resources River Management team.

Others, however, are less kind. One agency I spoke with said that the opportunity for a legal challenge is severely complicated by the fact that the whole thing appears to be illegal already .... and it's tough to get a law changed when the legalese you're looking for is already in place.

The path to a solution runs through the Governor's office. The opportunity for the digging was created when the Governor opened the door …. and only he can close it.

To email Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin .... send a note to GovernorVT@state.vt.us

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