Title

UN-DAM THE RIVER? PUBLIC OPINION AND ENGAGEMENT WITH ISSUES OF DAM REMOVAL IN NEW ENGLAND

Date of Award

Fall 2021

Project Type

Dissertation

Program or Major

Natural Resources and Environmental Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Lawrence C Hamilton

Second Advisor

Bridie McGreavy

Third Advisor

Catherine Ashcraft

Abstract

Complex interactions between society, ecology, and the economy have revealed a particularly challenging set of problems in the context of sustainability and sustainable development. Such problems are “wicked” in nature due to their high degree of uncertainty, lack of a shared definition, competing values, complex social-technical interactions, as well as the often contradictory institutional and procedural governmental regulations and frameworks. Such multi-issue, multi-party problems are prevalent in management of social-ecological systems, particularly those surrounding decisions about water resources—given that such problems cannot be tackled via a single discipline, scientists have called for production of new knowledge that informs policy making and advances societal needs. Sustainability science is a new frontier which can help organically integrate science, engineering, and planning, and ultimately support production of actionable science that helps find solutions to urgent human needs, inform long-term planning, and impact policy making at the intersection of human well-being and the protection of the planet’s life support systems. A sustainability science framework is useful for tackling problem-solving around “wicked” water resource management issues, such as decisions about dams.

New England, as much the rest of the world, has been subject to vast landscape alteration and ecological degradation over the past several hundred years. While some view dams as symbols of human ingenuity, others see them as symbols of colonization and environmental degradation. Given that thousands of these dams are reaching the end of their lifespan and pose safety risks, they present unique river restoration opportunities. However, alternative management decisions about dams, such as removal, are associated with various costs and benefits, or tradeoffs. As stakeholders are faced with decisions regarding the fate of aging dams in their communities, they are often confronted with contentious and polarizing arguments about what should be done with a particular dam. Stakeholders’ conflicting interests within the context of the social, ecological, and engineering complexities surrounding dams, often lead to unsuccessful negotiations that make it challenging to make progress toward shared sustainability goals.

This dissertation seeks to improve the current decision-making landscape about dams, and the hard-bargaining negotiation practices that often surround them, by bridging the science-policy divide via 1) addressing knowledge gaps about public and stakeholder perspectives, and 2) advancing collaborative decision-making theory and practice via design, implementation, and evaluation of a science-based role-play negotiation simulation, a novel process of knowledge production tested with stakeholders in New England. The dissertation structure is further organized into three distinct studies. Study 1 explores public opinion surrounding dams in New Hampshire within the context of four tradeoffs—findings reveal that the majority of respondents favor removing dams as opposed to keeping them for preservation of industrial history, property values, or flatwater recreation. Respondents favor keeping dams, however, if they are to be used for electricity generation via hydropower. Additionally, Study 1 results show that younger respondents, women, and liberal-leaning respondents are more likely to support dam removal, although this varies depending on the tradeoff.

The focus of Study 2 was to develop a stakeholder assessment for the state of New Hampshire to inform whether and how fostering a collaborative decision-making process is possible. Specific objectives for Study 2 were to identify 1) the stakeholder groups, priority interests, issues, and decision-making constraints, and 2) barriers and opportunities to fostering collaboration and desired project outcomes. Results from Study 2 reveal that stakeholders are open to collaborating and reimagining the decision-making landscape around dams, but need to overcome substantive and process-related barriers by focusing on opportunities around transparent and participatory decision-making, diversity of public participation platforms and modes of engagement, trust in science and among stakeholders, effective science communication, competent technical consultants, funding availability, and joint fact-finding.

Study 3 examined the extent to which science-based role-play negotiation simulations impact learning, use of science in decision-making, and innovative problem-solving around management of dams in New England. As part of this study, stakeholders engaged in a mock decision-making process (reflecting real-life institutional arrangements and scientific knowledge) for a set period. Tradeoffs between hydropower, fish passage, costs, cultural/historic benefits, recreation, and property values were at the center of this negotiation simulation. By playing an assigned role (different from the participant’s real-life role) while interacting with a computational model across a series of workshops in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, participants had a safe space to learn about each other’s perspectives, develop shared understanding about a complex issue, and collaborate on solving that issue. The role-play was evaluated using data from a mixture of questionnaires, interviews, concept mapping activities, and debriefing sessions. Results from Study 3 indicate that science-based role-plays lead to shifts in cognitive, normative, and relational learning. Results also reveal that stakeholders view immersive knowledge production processes, such as these role-plays, as salient and legitimate products (however, not without some criticism), suggesting that such products can contribute toward bridging the science-to-policy divide in issues surrounding dams. In summary, this dissertation uses mixed-methods to carry out applied, problem-oriented, solutions-driven, and user-inspired research that contributes toward the advancement of theory and practice of sustainability science, while helping address disciplinary gaps and shape decision-making around dams in New England and beyond.

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