Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Someone from Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA) stopped by my front door recently.  Her goal was to solicit new members.  I lauded her effort to walk door to door.  I’ve done it and know that it can be a wearying, sometimes frustrating, task.  Even though my dinner was cooling, I happily chatted with her.  We shared many enthusiasms; the SMART Train, infill development, the Petaluma Station Area planning process, advocacy for many of the same elected officials.

However, I chose not to join the SCCA.  It wasn’t the right time for me to make the commitment, plus there were a few SCCA positions that weren’t comfortable to me.   She was disappointed not to close the deal when she felt we had much in common.  She bombarded me with her repertoire of closing techniques.  “But if you agree with us on many points, isn’t that enough reason to join?”  “Do you really think that there is an organization with which you can agree on everything?”  I parried her questions and remained unsold.

She finally went to her biggest weapon, gravel mining along the Russian River threatening drinking water quality.  I concurred in her concern for drinking water.  But, as a civil engineer, I also knew something about the need for gravel, so asked for her solutions to gravel supply.  To her credit, she had some answers, although not fully formulated solutions.

Eventually, she defaulted to the argument that drinking water is of such supreme importance that the problem of gravel supply can be relegated for later resolution, after the gravel pits along the river are closed.  I didn’t agree and she soon decided that she could better spend her time elsewhere.  We parted with pleasantries and I returned to my room temperature chicken and green beans.

After she left, I remained unsettled by the discussion.  As I rolled it over in my head, the pea underneath the pile of mattresses became evident.  The modern environmental movement had its birth in the insight that all elements of an environment are interconnected.  If one must point to a single moment of birth, it was the recognition that using DDT as an insecticide had impacts far beyond its immediate application.  Modern environmentalism is about looking at our world as a fully interconnected system.

The dichotomy that the woman at my front door was willing to drawn between gravel and drinking water ignored that interconnectedness.

I’m not offering a paean to gravel.  If I had to choose tomorrow morning between water in my faucet or a load of gravel in my driveway, I’m going with the water.

But if almost a half-million human beings are going to live in Sonoma County, then gravel is essential.  Without it, our streets return to dirt, dust, and mud.  Our new homes would be on stone foundations, fearfully awaiting the next earthquake.  And most of our larger buildings couldn’t be constructed.  For someone who wears the cloak of environmentalism to dismiss gravel production as clearly of secondary importance was fundamentally wrong and inconsistent with environmentalism.

Lest you think that I’m an apologist for the gravel industry, I’m not.  They provide an essential component of our built environment, but many producers have stretched the law.

If I was in a position of authority, which I’m not, I’d take a hard look at the claim of imminent risk to our drinking water supply.  If those claims were credible, I’d propose that we revoke the operating permits and reimburse the gravel operators for lost profits.  Then, I’d offer a subsidy to gravel operators who don’t threaten the waterways.  Otherwise, we might open the door for gravel from neighboring counties who may be willing to endanger their own waterways.

It wouldn’t be a cheap solution.  Indeed, it’s probably an impossible solution in our current budgetary straits.  But would be less expensive than harming the Russian River and also respects the free enterprise system.

To be clear, I’m not trying to criticize the SCCA.  They do good work and raise legitimate issues.  I expect most of us, certainly including me, have sometimes argued points by ignoring key nuances.  Perhaps I hold environmental organizations to a higher standard, which may be why this argument unsettled me.

As a New Year looms, perhaps we can all make a resolution to not oversimplify complex systems, even when engaged in debate.  And even when arguing for new urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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