The Revenge of the C Students

As I See It


Bill Sargent, The Daily News of Newburyport, Edition 12/1/2017

“Scientists have a snarky term for a phenomenon they call ‘The revenge of the C students.’ It refers to those students closer to the bottom of the class who often end up in regulatory positions where can they decide the fate of research projects conducted by their brighter classmates. I give myself liberty to use this term since I, too, was closer to the C students.”

“Unfortunately, something akin to this is hampering our ability to continue living in places like Plum Island. The Marine Biological Laboratory’s long-term research project on Plum Island Sound provides a case in point.”

“It attracts some of the top scientists in the country who have often been the first ones to sound the alarm about the fragility of coastal marshes. But they often have trouble getting permission from state regulators to do small noninvasive pilot projects to understand things like how nutrientsflow through a marsh.”

“Some of these projects have to go through the same permitting process as a developer goes through to build a four-story condominium in a marsh.”

“Researchers with the Massachusetts Bays Program have had similar problems getting permission to cover eight small, square-meter plots with a thin layer of sand to see whether such sand deposition can counter the effects of sea level rise on marsh grasses.”

“Shellfish officials have thwarted scientists trying to use blue mussel beds as a natural storm surge barrier. Plus, the project to build two sacrificial dunes to protect the houses on Northern Reservation Terrace was delayed by the Natural Heritage Program because of piping plovers that have never been known to nest in that area.”

“Moreover, it is often difficult for a homeowner to find an engineering firm willing to do a small living shoreline project because the permitting process is just as time consuming and expensive for a small environmentally sensitive project as for a larger environmentally destructive one. Consequently, far fewer environmentally sensitive projects get done than larger destructive ones.

“What we need are as many carrots to encourage environmentally beneficial projects as sticks to discourage destructive ones. This will be the only way we will be able to act proactively to protect the coast rather than to wait until an emergency when all people can think to do is dump more rocks on the beach.”

“There were several things that could have been done to protect houses on Plum Island before the March 2013 storm but they would have had to have been researched and tried five years before the emergency was on us.”

“By the same token, if we build small sacrificial dunes in front of Northern Reservation Terrace now, we won’t be stuck with having to dump ineffective rocks on the beach under emergency conditions later. But we won’t be able to do innovative projects like these unless the permittingallows for more research and innovation.”

“There are several ways to streamline the process. One would be to have two tiers of projects — one that would be for more innovative, soft engineering research- oriented solutions and another for more traditional, hard engineering ones.”

“Another would be to have more of a chain of command than the present system of several regulatory fiefdoms with their jealously guarded powers and prerogatives. For instance, an agency like the Coastal Zone Management Office, which has responsibility for looking at the big picture, could be the lead agency to usher through beneficial projects instead of having several regulatory agencies that can kill projects on the basis of their own specific concerns.”

“Sen. Bruce Tarr has started to revise the permitting process to make it easier for homeowners to protect their homes. Adding carrots to this stew will ensure that we can also incorporate innovative natural solutions so we can live on the coast as long as possible.”

Science writer Bill Sargent is a regular contributor to this page. His most recent book, “Plum Island 2017: Resurrection”, is available in local bookstores and through the Plum Island Outdoors Store.

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