Grand Canyon dam

Dam works have flooded over a million acres of tribal land in the US, study finds

Image credit: Shutterstock

A region of tribal land larger than the state of Rhode Island has been submerged as a result of dam constructions in the US, researchers have found.

The floods caused by US dam constructions have raised concerns about the destruction of ecosystems and the cultural heritage and livelihoods of Native people.

A team of researchers at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Arizona has found that as much as 1.13 million acres of tribal land in the US have been submerged as a result of the construction of 424 dams all around the country. 

The data has been taken from records held by federal Indian reservations and Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas (OTSAs) alongside the locations of nearly 8000 dams across the US and the size of their reservoirs.

“The consequences of dam-induced land loss are far-reaching. The disruption of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems not only devastates natural resources but also destroys culturally significant sites,” said Heather Randell, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography at Penn State University. 

“The impact on local communities’ livelihoods and displacement from their ancestral lands is equally severe.” 

Hoover Dam, US

Hoover Dam, US / Shutterstock

Image credit: Shutterstock

To address this issue, the researchers have recommended the prioritisation of dam removal wherever feasible, along with exploring alternatives such as tribal ownership or funding for dam repairs and improvements in cases where removal is not viable. 

“In the wake of recent federal legislation addressing ageing infrastructure in the US, it is important to prioritise removing dams that have flooded tribal land,” Randell said.

“This is an opportunity to address historical land dispossession and to respect the sovereignty and rights of Indigenous communities.”

The land Native communities have lost to dams is in addition to the 2 billion acres of tribal land that colonial settlers and the federal government have acquired from Native nations through various policies, including forced removal, allotment and the reservation system.

The US government is currently providing funds for dam removal efforts, including $800m as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Act. Moreover, the 21st Century Dams Act, if approved, would provide up to an additional $7.5bn for dam removal.

The research was published in Environmental Research Letters.

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