Our Work

Vermont’s Shorelines at Risk

OpEd from the Valley News, June 3, 2012

By Chuck Wooster

Friends of mine who live on the Connecticut River have an unusual summer ritual. When they see a large log or uprooted tree floating by, they paddle out into the river, pull the trunk over to their shore, and anchor it to the bank using ropes and rocks. They are trying to protect their yard from the waves that are slowly undermining it and washing it away.

I’ve stood in their yard and observed how such a log deflects the waves away from their shoreline, neatly accomplishing their goal. I’ve also noticed how the same log deflects these same waves right onto their neighbor’s yard and wrecks it. The neighbor’s yard is unprotected.

My friends readily acknowledge that in fixing their problem they are creating a new one for their neighbor, but they claim the “other people are doing it, too” defense, which is hard to refute. If you look up and down the banks of the Connecticut, you see all manner of boat docks, riprap, wooden retaining walls, roadside fill, and railroad causeways, especially on the Vermont side, where many of these things are perfectly legal. I’d probably do the same thing if I lived in their house.

Which brings up a larger problem: the lack of shoreline protection is an example of how Adam Smith’s invisible hand can end up poking society in the eye. Each person acting in their own self interest, far from creating a better riverbank, creates a more expensive riverbank. The people who live along the shoreline are locked in an arms race: if your neighbor spends $10,000 on a stone retaining wall, your only option is to drop ten grand yourself or else watch your yard (and your home equity) wash away downstream.

Worse yet, you’re paying for the arms race even if you don’t live on the river.  The half-billion dollar tab left behind by Hurricane Irene is being picked up by all of us.

In the case of shoreline protection, appropriate government regulation, far from costing money and ruining the economy, would have just the opposite effect: it would save money. Nothing costs less than everyone leaving the rivers alone.

As it happens, New Hampshire already has such regulations in place. The Comprehensive Shoreline Protection Act was passed in 1991, primarily in an effort to protect the scenic shorelines of the Granite State’s numerous lakes. Funding for adequate enforcement is hard to come by, of course my friends live on the New Hampshire bank but at least the Granite State is trying.

Across the river in Vermont, no such statewide protections exist. Perhaps this is understandable, given that Vermont has very few natural lakes of its own and that, compared with New Hampshire, Vermont is a rural state, meaning that most of the population lives in small towns, not in big cities. It’s one thing for Concord to impose regulations on a bunch of second home owners on the big lakes; it’s quite another for Montpelier to impose the same on its citizens, many of whom live on a pond or stream of their own.

But it is striking to find an environmental issue where New Hampshire is so far ahead of Vermont.

Especially when the economics of shoreline protection are so compelling. Good regulations alone wouldn’t have prevented Irene’s damage, since Vermont already has so much historical development in its floodplains, but they would certainly prevent the problem from getting worse next time. An ounce of prevention – avoid the flood in the first place – is much cheaper than the pound of cure we’re paying for now that the devastation has passed.

How do shoreline protections work? They typically establish a buffer strip, often 50 or 100 feet wide, in which property owners keep the river bank in its natural state to mitigate future flooding. A floating dock or dock on pilings that water can flow under and around is typically fine, a solid stone dock is not. Plantings of willows and shrubs that anchor the bank are allowed, installations of riprap and concrete are not. A canoe on a rack is great; a boathouse on a poured foundation is not. You get the idea.

Five years ago, when the Vermont legislature last took up a shoreline protection bill, the effort died without a vote. So-called property rights advocates were concerned about governmental intrusion into their back yards. But now that Irene has destroyed so much private property, and now that the government has spent so much taxpayer money to repair the damage, it’s time to reconsider such objections

The official approach in Vermont these days is to encourage individual towns (or groups of towns) along key river corridors to adopt their own shoreline protections. This piecemeal approach is actually the most expensive solution of all, as my friends’ experience on the Connecticut demonstrates, since it concentrates the damage on unprotected property.

Take the town of Hartford, for example, which lost a major bridge (Quechee), a public library (West Hartford), and a railroad bridge (White River Junction) to Irene, along with dozens of private residences. Hartford is one of the few towns in Vermont that already has shoreline protections in place. (They were enacted in 2007.) But to what end? The damage in Hartford came not from the rain that fell in Hartford, which was heavy but not unusual, but rather from the deluge that fell farther up the valleys of the White and Ottauquechee Rivers and then accelerated downriver.

Only when whole watersheds are considered do shoreline protections work. And only then will the future costs to taxpayers be minimized. When the new Vermont legislature reconvenes next January, I hope they keep this simple economic fact in mind.

Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer in Hartford.