Dams vs. free-flowing rivers: Students get a local perspective


Outflow from the Little River Dam

In a room 40-foot under water, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling, students in English Professor Rick Van Noy's Environmental Ethics Honors class recently learned the positives and negatives in a debate about dams.

The class recently visited Little River Dam in Radford to get a local perspective on the issues of damming water versus free-flowing rivers.

"People usually have one of two kinds of perspectives concerning dams in general," said Katharyn Seay, a junior biology major, of Bassett. "Either they want to preserve the dams and use them for tourism or as a power supply, or they want to tear dams down and try to restore the waters back to their natural conditions."

The textbook the class is studying has numerous cases studies "on environmental ethics, and we had just read a chapter called 'Hydropower or Free-flowing Rivers?'" Van Noy explained.

The class also watched a documentary, "DamNation," about the history of dams in the United States.

Mike Goad, the electrical engineer for the city of Radford, provided a tour and a lesson on dams. Van Noy said there are benefits to running the Little River Dam – it's not operating now because the turbine is broken – although it would provide the city and university with only a small percentage of energy.

"The nice thing about our visit to Little River Dam was that we got to see another perspective. We had spent a lot of time talking about all of the factors that make dams bad for us environmentally, and seeing the dam helped reaffirm and dismiss some of those," said Amanda Dixon, a psychology major, of Stephens City.


Students atop the Little River Dam

Part of the tour, Van Noy said, gave students a historical perspective.

"When the dam was built in the '30s, engineers thought it would supply all of the city's power, including the trolley cars," the professor said. "It did when people had only a light bulb and a radio, but that didn't last long."

Van Noy's environmental ethics class is a core honors class focused on ethical reasoning. Students explore ethics and ethical decision making and learn to think critically and debate various environmental issues and circumstances, such as the privatization of water distribution in Turkey and deforestation in Madagascar.

His students are writing proposals to research one local or regional environmental issue that has ethical and environmental ramifications.

"These students will inherit the energy and climate change problems in the near future," Van Noy said. "They'll need to weigh factors, such as these. The book can be theoretical, but you always need the concrete particularities of specific communities."

Out of the classroom, Van Noy's students picked up trash along the New River during RU's Sustainability Week and are planning a trip to Selu Conservancy to discuss and learn more about food production.

Oct 15, 2014