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Weis: Water, Water Everywhere

06/07/12 5:55PM By Russ Weis
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(Host) Environmental educator and commentator Russ Weis gives us his free-flowing thoughts about the potential for tapping Vermont's plentiful water resources to create electricity.

(Weiss) Perhaps you've heard the old joke: two fish swim into a concrete wall. One turns to the other and says "Dam."

Well, I've been doing some thinking about dams lately, probably because I've taken to resuming my spring visits to the beaver marsh across the road. Beavers instinctively understand water, its power and its flow.

And we humans are also pretty good at utilizing water for our own purposes. In fact, here in Vermont, nearly every river was dammed by the 1800s, providing the power to run the sawmills and gristmills that in turn powered our state's economy.

Of course, such over-development had its environmental downside. Lots of fish were blocked and ecosystems damaged. So it's a good thing that regulations developed over the years to protect our state's precious water resources.

But lately, some renewable energy advocates are asking why should we just leave it to the beaver to capitalize on our plentiful creeks and streams? In fact, a bill streamlining the approval process for small-scale hydro projects was approved by the legislature earlier this year.

Creating more of our electricity using such a sustainable source seems smart to me, providing we make sure to balance our power needs against any potential environmental effects. After all, "small-scale" does not always mean "low-impact." These days it seems we Vermonters are continually being reminded of the far-from-low impact water can have on our environment.

Last spring's widespread flooding and last fall's Tropical Storm Irene both served as vivid reminders of just how powerful water can be. And recently, other "dramatic rainfall events," as global climate change guru Bill McKibben calls them, hit many parts of our state hard.

It appears undeniable now that our weather is getting warmer, wetter, and wilder. So we'll need to press on with renewed urgency towards renewable sources - those that don't produce global warming gases - to create our electricity .

As we do, I suggest we look to an ethic that resonates with most Vermonters, namely, "small is beautiful." Even as we further develop our liquid assets, let us do so in human-scale proportions. In other words, neighborhood and community hydro projects should take precedence over large-scale ones.

We Vermonters don't have to swim with the corporate sharks to solve our energy issues. If we work together we can keep the big fish at bay, just like in a cartoon I once saw, with lots of little fish swimming together in the shape of a huge fish chasing a single large fish away. I'm afraid that if we don't learn to tackle the energy challenges of today in thoughtful and collective fashion, someday soon we'll be up the proverbial creek, minus the paddle.

Right now, though, my head swims with all the possibilities for combining better flood control with enhanced local energy generation. We have the resources and know-how at hand, but if we don't act quickly and efficiently we might well end up like many fish out of water. And that would be a DARN shame.
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