Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fish VS. People: A "Red Herring" Washed In by Irene Floods

When talking to people in person and online about Vermont's flooding damage from Irene, I keep coming across an odd concept that seems to have washed in with the floods.  Some people are viewing the skepticism about gravel mining and channelizing rivers as an effort to 'put the interests of fish in front of those of people'.

Obviously the idea of people with such and agenda elicits concerns from residents... no one wants to lose their home in a flood to protect fish habitat.  The thing is... the 'fish/human trade-off' is a myth.  People aren't trying to stop the use of destructive methods of 'flood control' just to help fish.  They are doing so because these obsolete methods don't control floods!  All too often, they involve damaging river ecosystems, while not increasing (and sometimes decreasing) flood safety!

Some people think the mainstream environmental movement has gone awry in considering 'nature' as something that exists at the whim of, and needs protection from, us humans.  I happen to be one of them.  This is an outdated and illogical view.  We don't need to save the rivers from us, nor do we need to over-engineer the rivers to save us from them.  We need to understand the rivers and their watersheds, and use a combination of science, smart engineering, and local knowledge to come up with long-term solutions.  We need to avoid knee-jerk, fear based reactions.  Crews have been doing a great job of fixing infrastructure... an amazing job, in fact.  When it comes to making major modifications to the rivers, though, we need to take a long-term view.

The idea behind channelizing and gravel-mining of rivers is an old one.  The Army Corps of Engineers spent a lot of time in the early 20th century channelizing and dredging rivers, and we are now spending a lot of time dealing with the long term effects of these practices, which include increased sedimentation and erosion, increased flood crest height, and decreased river flow during droughts.  As is so often the case, people were doing what seemed best at the time... but we have learned a lot since that time.  If you became sick, would you want to go to a doctor who would only use medicines and techniques developed before 1930?  Some of these older practices are still very important today, but many have been proven to be ineffective or even harmful.  The same is true with river management practices.  Let's not apply bloodletting leaches and snake-oil treatments to our rivers, just out of stubbornness.  Instead, let's use techniques that acknowledge the effects of the entire watershed and take all we now know into account.

On the flip side, I've also run across a few people who have been advocating rivers who walk into town meetings filled with concerned residents and say things like "I have as much stake in the river as you do - I fish there!".  As someone who very much loves 'my' river (as does everyone I've met in town) and also was threatened by it during flooding, I didn't feel very good when I hear these comments.  I can't imagine how people who don't have as much background in the importance of river conservation feel about these comments, especially people less lucky than I am who spent the week after Irene shoveling mud out of their basements.  YES, we all depend on the rivers, and yes, we should all have our say, since we are all dependent on the health of rivers.  But, please understand that people directly impacted by floods do have a higher stake in the matter, because they are the ones at risk of losing their homes or even their lives when floods occur.  Please do share ideas, speak your mind, and share your thoughts on why some techniques of river 'control' are counterproductive... but please also be respectful of those most impacted by the floods!

Above all, thanks to everyone who cares about our communities and rivers!  There have been some frustrations, but overall, Vermont's response to the Irene floods has been inspirational.  This event will change how we look at and interact with our waterways, and it's looking like, despite a few challenges, the changes will be positive ones.

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