Dams and tribal land loss in the United States

Heather Randell, Andrew Curley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Indigenous peoples in the United States have faced continued land dispossession for centuries. Through the reservation system as well as policies including forced removal and allotment, colonial settlers and later the federal government acquired over two billion acres from Native Nations. We argue that another important, yet understudied and unquantified, contributor to tribal land loss is through the construction of dams. By restricting water flow in rivers or lakes, dams submerge land under reservoirs and disrupt aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This impacts livelihoods of local communities, destroys culturally important places and resources, and displaces people from their homes and land. To quantify the amount of tribal land lost as a result of dam construction, we engage in an innovative data linkage project. We use geospatial data on the boundaries of federal Indian reservations and Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas (OTSAs) and overlay these data with the locations of approximately 7,900 dams in the continental US. We estimate that 139 dams have submerged over 619 000 acres of land on 56 federal reservations and that 287 dams have inundated over 511 000 acres of land on 19 OTSAs. Taken together, our lower-bound estimate is that over 1.13 million acres of tribal land have been flooded under the reservoirs of 424 dams, which amounts to an area larger than Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park combined. In light of recent federal legislation to address aging infrastructure in the US as well as the increasing risks to dam function and safety caused by climate change, dams that impact tribal land should be prioritized for removal. In cases where removal is not a preferred or viable option, alternatives include tribal ownership or funding for repairs and improvements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number094001
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023


  • Indigenous nations
  • United States
  • dams
  • environmental justice
  • infrastructure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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