The United States is a heavily dammed country, with over 90,000 dams and at least one on almost every river system. With these dams come complex trade-offs that are being discussed more often by policy makers. In a recent lecture, titled “Rendezvous for Sustainability: Creating space for science-based collaborative solutions,” on Sept. 27, Dr. Catherine Ashcroft and Dr. Weiwei Mo discussed their five year research project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project explores the future of dams in our country, and was presented as a part of the Mitchell Center’s Sustainability Talks series.
Dams in the United States have many benefits, like energy creation and creating cultural relationships with the river system. But they can also have drastic side effects, like waste pollution and other water quality issues due to the prevention of migration of various aquatic species. This study focused on collaboration with policy makers, educators and researchers throughout Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island to prepare for the aging dams, nearing delicensing, so decisions coming in the near future can be better balanced.
The main part of the study was a workshop based around a participatory system dynamics model and a role play simulation. The workshop involved seven participants and a facilitator––each with their own confidential role instructions––detailing their priorities and what they were hoping for in the negotiations.
The workshop, a collaboration between stakeholders and experts, consisted of time spent getting to know each other, negotiations, debriefs and discussion and then evaluation on what the results were. The negotiations were based around the idea that Dam A in a coastal basin containing five dams had a Notice of Public Safety and the various participants needed to address and negotiate four decisions: choosing the dam to address, any alternatives to dam management, the parties responsible for putting the plan in motion and how were the costs getting paid. The group went through different discussions surrounding scenarios based on real life scenarios and then reflected on the results.
The team engaged a diverse range of individuals in the research, spanning federal government, state government, non government organizations and educators.
The results showed that 75% of the participants found their understanding of involvement in dam issues increased, as well as 89% found they understood other perspectives a lot better once the workshop had concluded. 93% of the participants said that their understanding of social, economic, and environmental issues increased. 64% had their views on different policies regarding dams changed, with 68% claiming that the model the research team used should be utilized in discussions and negotiations involving policy moving forward. 92% of participants said they had plans to use this workshop in their future work involving dam issues.
Mo ended the presentation with a quick overview of what they hoped to achieve with this research; allowing stakeholders and researchers to use the engaged research they were involved in to apply it in future directions, like dealing with uncertainties, pinpointing who can make the most changes and building a space for social justice to flourish.
If you’d like to know more about the research that Ashcroft and Mo conducted or their results, the lecture is available to watch at https://umaine.edu/mitchellcenter/seminars/fall-2021-sustainability-talks/.