Over one million acres of tribal land submerged by dams in the US

The findings raise concerns about the destruction of ecosystems, cultural heritage, and livelihoods.


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Native Americans in the United States have endured constant land eviction for generations. Colonial settlers and later the federal government took more than two billion acres from Native Nations through the reservation system and other programs such as forced removal and allotment.

A new study argues that dam construction is a factor in tribal land loss, albeit understudied and unquantified. Dams submerge land beneath reservoirs by limiting water flow in rivers or lakes, disrupting aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Local communities’ livelihoods are impacted, major cultural sites and resources are destroyed, and people are uprooted from their homes and lands.

To quantify the amount of tribal land lost due to dam construction, scientists used geospatial data on the boundaries of federal Indian reservations and Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas (OTSAs). They overlay these data with the locations of approximately 7,900 dams in the continental US.

They found dam constructions have flooded over 1.13 million acres of tribal land in the US, contributing to the historic and ongoing struggle against land dispossession for Indigenous peoples in the United States. The area submerged is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The research reveals that 424 dams have flooded 1.13 million acres of tribal land in the US.

Heather Randell, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography at Penn State University says“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. The impact on local communities’ livelihoods and displacement from their ancestral lands is equally severe.”

The research team suggests prioritizing dam removal whenever it is practical and looking into other options like tribal ownership or funding for dam repairs and upgrades when removal is not an option.

Randell said, “In the wake of recent federal legislation addressing aging infrastructure in the United States, it is important to prioritize removing dams that have flooded tribal land. This is an opportunity to address historical land dispossession and respect Indigenous communities’ sovereignty and rights.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Heather Randell and Andrew Curley. Dams and tribal land loss in the United States. Environmental Research Letters. DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/acd268