Dams disproportionately removed from areas with more non-Hispanic white
Portland, Ore., USA: Since the 1970s, dams have been removed from
the U.S. at an increasing rate, with the aim to improve the ecology of
river ecosystems, fish migration pathways, water quality, and recreation
“We have about 90,000 dams here in the United States and these dams were
built for a whole host of reasons, and many of them are reaching the end of
their lifespans. So it’s starting to be recognized that their removal will
have net benefits for society,” said Josh Galster, an associate professor
in the department of Earth and Environmental Studies at Montclair State
In 2018, Galster was working on a dam removal project on the Paulinskill
River near Columbia, New Jersey, doing scientific monitoring of the river.
Since the dam was being removed to improve the natural setting of the
recreation areas in an already quite scenic area of New Jersey, Galster
wondered where else dam removals were happening nationwide and if they were
being done in an equitable fashion.
Galster teamed with his father, George Galster, an emeritus professor in
the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, to
evaluate the environmental justice of dam removal.
“My father and I feel that it’s important to recognize and analyze where
we’re doing these [dam removals] and where these resources are being spent
because if we’re spending that much to improve the local conditions around
that dam, then who are the people that are living near that dam that are
going to benefit the most?” said Galster.
They examined dam removals since 2010 and compared that information to a
database of existing dams in the U.S. and demographic information from the
U.S. Census Bureau, broken down into four regions: Northeast, South,
Midwest, and West.
Almost half of the dams removed since 2010 were in the Northeast, while the
South had the fewest removed. Areas that had a dam removed had
significantly larger populations of non-Hispanic white residents when
compared to other areas with dams or to the nation as a whole.
“We found that really the racial gap in where dams are being removed is
basically entirely being created by dams being removed in the South,” said
Even controlling for the type of dam, whether it was shorter, older, made
of earthen versus concrete material, they found that dams were still being
disproportionately removed in the southern region from areas with a higher
degree of white residents.
A potential complicating factor in dam removal is the variability in
procedures based on the state in which the dam is located and who owns the
dam. Dams can be owned by either the federal government, state or local
governments, utility companies, private businesses, or individuals. States
like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have led the way in dam removals, with some
of the highest numbers of dams removed in the nation, while states like
Oklahoma have only had one dam removed between 1912 and 2020.
“Dam removals are an important way to restore rivers, and we should keep
doing them. However, we should also be aware of the larger picture of where
those have been done and where we should do those in the future to make
sure that everybody benefits from all of these resources that we are
spending on dam removals, and so that we can make that group of people that
benefits from them be more diverse,” said Galster.
Galster will present
on Sunday at the Geological Society of America’s GSA Connects 2021 annual
meeting in Portland, Oregon.
Session 31: D23. Recent Advances in Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology
Paper 31-1: Dam removals and environmental justice
Sunday, 10 Oct., 1:35–1:50 p.m.
Oregon Convention Center Room D137
Contact: Josh Galster (email@example.com)
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The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society
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service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, USA, GSA
encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social
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levels of earth science education.