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07/21/08 7:55AM By Timothy McQuiston
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(HOST) Commentator Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine. And he says that in the years ahead, the politics of water may have a greater impact on Vermont than the politics of oil.

(MCQUISTON) As we've all heard, Vermont is getting older, college students are leaving the state for greener pastures, and the state will soon be losing significant amounts of income tax revenues as baby boomers retire. In the meantime, government obligations in regard to Medicare and Medicaid will skyrocket to meet the needs of an aging and shrinking population. Such is the gloomy demographic prognostication.

Apparently, Middlebury Professor John Berninghausen didn't get that memo. Berninghausen is the Truscott Professor of Chinese Studies. And he's been around the world many times. In a recent speech he revealed some of what he's seen, the global trends he's noticed, and what it all means for Vermont.

What Berninghausen basically said was this: The world is running out of land and running out of water. While the rest of us grouse about gasoline prices, Berninghausen sees a much more basic problem, one that goes back as far as humans have formed societies.

Many wars have been fought over land and water. Before wells and irrigation opened up the prairie lands and the western parts of this continent, much of that land was nearly unpopulated, even in pre-Columbian times. There simply was not enough surface water. In the 19th century, with groundwater brought to the surface and rivers diverted, the country opened up and the West was won.

Suddenly, there was water to feed the land, and the people rushed in.

In modern times, in places like China, India, parts of Africa, and the Middle East, there may or may not be land, but, in any case, there is less and less water for industrial demands and growing populations.

Professor Berninghausen believes that Vermont should prepare itself for a modern land rush. He said Vermont's land and abundant water could become the 21st century gold rush.

While Vermont doesn't have millions of acres of open land, it has a relatively low population density within a high density region. For instance, we don't think of New Hampshire being over-populated by any means. But the Granite State has about twice the population of Vermont in a slightly smaller area. Vermont's population density is 66 people per square mile, the U.S. average is 80 people per square mile, and New Hampshire's population density is 138.

Vermont not only has land, it has water, lots of water, fresh water. As a commodity, oil could become a minor celebrity in the decades to come in comparison to water.

Professor Berninghausen maintains that people are going to come here to take advantage of those two ever-shrinking commodities. In a speech at Middlebury to a group of middle school students, he pointedly stated that it is their generation that will have to deal with Vermont's new demographic future. Maybe it's time to send out a new memo.
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