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date: 24 March 2018

Communicating about Hydropower, Dams, and Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

As the global imperative for sustainable energy builds and with hydroelectricity proposed as one aspect of a sustainable energy profile, public discourse reflects the complex and competing discourses and social-ecological trade-offs surrounding hydropower and dams. Is hydropower “green”? Is it “sustainable”? Is it “renewable”? Does hydropower provide a necessary alternative to fossil fuel dependence? Can the ecological consequences of hydropower be mitigated? Is this the end of the hydropower era, or is it simply the beginning of a new chapter? These pressing questions circulate through discussions about hydropower in a time of changing climate, globally declining fisheries, and aging infrastructure, lending a sense of urgency to the many decisions to be made about the future of dams.

The United States and European Union (EU) saw an enduring trend of dam building from the Industrial Revolution through the mid-1970s. In these countries, contemporary media discussions about hydropower are largely focused on removing existing hydropower dams and retrofitting existing dams that offer hydropower potential. Outside of these contexts, increasing numbers of countries are debating the merits of building new large-scale hydropower dams that, in many developing countries, may have disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities that hold little political or economic power. As a result, news and social media attention to hydropower outside the United States/EU often focus on activist efforts to oppose hydropower and on its complex consequences for ecosystems and communities alike.

Despite hydropower’s wide range of ecological, economic, and social trade-offs, and the increasing urgency of global conversations about hydropower, relatively little work in communication studies explores news media, social media, or public debate in the context of hydropower and dam removal. In an effort to expand the scope of communication studies, after reviewing existing work the attention here shifts to research focused more broadly on human dimensions of hydropower. These dual bodies of work focus on small and large dams from Europe to the Americas to Asia and have applied a range of methods for analyzing media coverage of the hydropower debate. Those studies are reviewed here, with an emphasis on the key themes that emerge across studies—including trust, communication, local engagement, and a call to action for interdisciplinary approaches, intertwined with conflict, conflict resolution, and social and ecological resistance. The conclusion offers an original case brief that elucidates emerging themes from our ongoing research about hydropower and dam removal in the United States, and suggests future directions for research.

Keywords: communication, conflict, dams, frames, hydroelectric, hydropower, media, New England, rhetoric, trade-offs

On May 7, 2014, The New York Times published a letter to the editor from Patagonia, Inc. founder Yvon Chouinard titled “Tear Down ‘Deadbeat’ Dams.” Alongside a black, gray, and green woodcut of a suited man peeling up the bottom edges of a dam to let fish flow beneath it, Chouinard detailed a litany of concerns with dams in the United States—80,000 existing dams, 26,000 high or significant hazard dams, water quality degradation, nutrient and sediment transport blockage, destruction of habitat, and damage of coastal estuaries—before launching into the main exigence for his letter: his critique of a 2014 Energy Department report focused on the potential for sustainable hydropower projects throughout the United States that Chouinard criticized as anything but “sustainable” (Chouinard, 2014). The letter dovetailed with the release of DamNation, a feature-length documentary film executively produced by Chouinard. The film argued unequivocally for removing out-of-date hydropower dams, sparking mainstream interest in hydropower and dam removal in the United States.

Chouinard’s letter prompted an immediate response to The New York Times from Linda Church Ciocci, Executive Director of the National Hydropower Association, who agreed with Chouinard’s assertion about removing out-of-date dams. However, she pointed to the important role of hydropower in America’s renewable electricity portfolio under conditions of global climate change, while citing industry’s increasing attempts to mitigate damage to migratory fish populations. Ciocci (2014), citing a Princeton survey of 1,000 U.S. adults, argued that public support for hydropower marked it as an important path forward for U.S. domestic energy under conditions of global environmental change (Princeton, 2014).

In many ways, the Chouinard/Ciocci exchange reveals many of the central tensions in current discussions of hydropower and dam removal. Is hydropower “sustainable”? Is it “green”? Is it “renewable”? Does hydropower provide a necessary alternative to fossil fuel dependence? Can hydropower’s ecological consequences be mitigated? Is this the end of the hydropower era, or is it simply the beginning of a new chapter? These central questions circulate through public discourse about hydropower in an era of climate change, lending urgency to increasing decisions about the future of dams.

The United States and EU saw a trend of dam construction from the Industrial Revolution through the mid-1970s (Ambers, 2007). In the wake of that construction boom, contemporary media discussions about hydropower are focused largely on removal and retrofitting of dams (Ambers, 2007; Bednarek, 2001; Gosnell & Kelly, 2010; Newcomb, 2010). Meanwhile, a growing number of developing countries are debating the merits of building new large-scale hydropower dams that may have disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities that hold little political or economic power (Braun, 2011; Chowdhury & Kipgen, 2013). As a result, academic attention to the human dimensions of hydropower development outside the United States/EU has largely focused on activist efforts that oppose hydropower and its complex consequences for ecosystems and communities. The early part of the 21st century demonstrates the high stakes surrounding public discourse about hydropower, from its ecological consequences to the uncertainties of climate change to its human stakes: made all the more visible in 2016 with the murder of Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres after successfully mobilizing resistance to the Agua Zarca Dam project (Watts, 2016; Peralta, 2016; La Prensa, 2016; Al Jazeera, 2016).

Despite the numerous ecological, economic, and social trade-offs associated with dams, coupled with the increasing urgency of global conversations about hydropower, few communication researchers have explored news media, social media, or public debate about hydropower and dam removal. Existing communication studies of hydropower from around the world are reviewed here, and it is noted that research tends to build from framing analyses to focus on how news media and social media about dams contest or support government discourse about hydropower. Because of limitations in current communication studies, human dimensions of hydropower research are reviewed more broadly, stressing emergent key themes, including trust, communication, local engagement, and a call to action for interdisciplinary approaches, intertwined with conflict, conflict resolution, and social and ecological resistance. These themes are connected with an original case example: the Penobscot watershed in Maine, which is a focus of ongoing research through a multistate, interdisciplinary, National Science Foundation-funded project focused on the future of decision making about dams.

The History and Science of Hydropower and Dams

Free-flowing rivers and their floodplains are host to an almost unrivaled biodiversity (Naiman, DeCamps, & Pollock, 1993), but humans have dramatically altered riverine habitats through damming efforts (Dynesius & Nilsson, 1994). Worldwide, there are more than 800,000 dams (Gleick, 1999; Postel & Richter, 2003); nearly 80% of large rivers in the earth’s northern third (including Europe, the former Soviet Union, the United States, and Canada) are impacted by dam development (Dynesius & Nilsson, 1994; Bednarek, 2001). The U.S. National Inventory of Dams (NID) estimates that there are over 80,000 dams in the United States alone (USACE, 2007), though this number is likely underestimated (Magilligan et al., 2016). Tens of thousands of historic mill dams are unaccounted for because they do not meet the NID height and reservoir volume criteria (Magilligan et al., 2016). While these small dams persist in the eastern United States and western Europe, dam size worldwide has increased over time, with more than 40,000 global dams over 15 meters in height by 2012 (Davis, 2012).

Historically, dams have been constructed for a variety of purposes and vary in size and reservoir capacity. Federal governments and the general public supported the development of mill dams in the United States and Europe in the 1800s and hydroelectric dams in the 1900s (see the Flood Control Act of 1927), primarily for energy and water reserves created for agricultural, industrial, and residential purposes (Doyle, Harbor, & Stanley, 2003). Beginning in the 19th century, mechanical energy from early dams—where potential energy is harnessed and transferred from the force of flowing or falling water passing through a turbine (Christensen et. al., 2004; Christensen & Lettenmaier, 2006)—was used to mill timber and power textile factories and manufacturing plants (Klunne, 2013). Social demands for water and mechanical energy produced by dams rose dramatically throughout the Industrial Revolution (Gleick, 2003) and contributed to electricity production by the last decade of the 19th century (Frey & Linke, 2002). In recent years, the increasing desire for non–fossil fuel-based energy has boosted interest in retrofitting existing dams for hydropower generation and thinking systemically about coordinating those efforts (Owen & Apse, 2014).

Social and Ecological Trade-offs of Dams

Although hydropower is often described as a sustainable and renewable alternative to fossil fuel-based energy, hydropower’s status as “green” energy is open to debate, as dams commonly exhibit a range of trade-offs that affect human communities and the environment in diverse ways (Frey & Linke, 2002). On one hand, dams have supported global human development by regulating river flows for navigation, flood control, water supply for irrigation, recreation, industry, household uses, and electricity production (Bednarek, 2001; Doyle, Harbor, & Stanley, 2003; Western Area Power Administration, 2011). Still water reservoirs created by some dams may also offer some ecological benefits, including nitrogen reduction in some above-dam ponds (Bosch & Allan, 2008; Lazar et al., 2015), as well as providing habitat for some fish species (Belding, 1920; Noble, 1981), though reservoirs seem to favor non-native and pond-dwelling species over native fish populations (Martinez et al., 1994; Kruk & Penczak, 2003).

These economic and ecological benefits from dams are met with many trade-offs. Dams fragment river connectivity and can decrease water quality and impact the exchange of sediments, nutrients, and organisms between and among aquatic and terrestrial regions (Ambers, 2007; Bednarek, 2001; Hart & Poff, 2002; Lima et al., 2008). Current research suggests that hydropower turbines initiate species shifts (Bednarek, 2001) and increase the mortality rates of aquatic species migrating downstream (Travade et al., 2010). Furthermore, methane emissions from some dams contribute to global climate change, with a 2016 synthesis suggesting that these contributions have long been underestimated (Demers et al., 2016). While U.S. federal hydropower regulations require dam owners to account for these potential issues, some impacts cannot be countered by common mitigation tools (Bednarek, 2001).

Dams also prompt social impacts, as ongoing questions linger about racial, class, and gendered inequalities related to who benefits or bears the cost of hydroelectric production (McCully, 2001; Namy, 2007; Desbiens, 2013; Öhman, 2016). These conflicts are amplified in the global south, where hydropower discussions tend to focus on dam construction (Braun, 2011; van Vuuren et al., 2011), while with few exceptions (Fox, Magilligan, & Sneddon, 2016) U.S. and European research tends to focus on the safety hazards of out-of-date dams and their impacts on migratory fish species (Ambers, 2007; WCD, 2000). Globally, there are still many underexplored topics of study ripe for applied social-ecological research that should feature methods, approaches, and analyses from communication studies. These topics include social costs and benefits of dams, local and broad community interactions with dams, and the intersection of political, social, economic, and ecological trade-offs (Bednarek, 2001; Heinz Center, 2002; Wyrick et al., 2009).

Hydropower Decision Making in an Era of Climate Change

Communication research is poised to make timely and significant contributions to hydropower decision making in the context of a changing climate. As of this writing, it is impossible to ignore the evidence of anthropogenic shifts to global systems (Bickford et al., 2012), which cause nonlinear, largely unpredictable impacts on dynamic social-ecological systems (Liu et al., 2007). The exact effects of climate change on hydropower dams will be shaped by the interaction of complex forces, including greenhouse gas emissions (to which some dams contribute [Deemer et al., 2016]), population growth and associated resource consumption, and development of remaining natural ecosystems, among others. Climate change will prompt dramatic shifts in the intensity and frequency of weather events (Ross & Lott, 2000; Weissbecker, 2011; Chernet et al., 2014); these changes in precipitation and runoff, coupled with increasing sea-level rise, can impact energy production and dam safety (Lehner et al., 2005; Chernet et al., 2014). Meanwhile, increasing recognition of the impacts of climate change has led governments and communities to search for more diverse energy portfolios, with hydroelectricity often named as a potentially important component.

Dams have not been constructed to accommodate these levels of previously unseen hydrological uncertainty, and many communities will soon be confronted with dams that no longer work as designed or are structurally unsafe (Chernet et al., 2014). Climate change will increase the rate and urgency of decisions about existing dams across the globe, underscoring the importance of communication studies and collaborations that would improve communication between scientists and stakeholders about the best available dam science and foster the inclusion of affected constituencies in decision making conversations.

Dams as Focal Point for Environmental Communication Research

Given these uncertainties, risks, and social and ecological trade-offs, complicated by shifting demands for noncarbon-based energy sources, large and small dams serve as focal points for intense debate and disagreement. Meanwhile, dams’ wide ranging impacts across watersheds and their many and diverse stakeholders mark dam decisions as productive sites for stakeholder engagement and improved forms of iterative communication (Druschke & Hychka, 2015). While hydropower construction and dam removal pose seemingly irresolvable contradictions for many stakeholders who hold competing values (Arlinghaus, 2006), these tensions mark dam decisions as consequential sites for environmental communication research and intervention.

As Cox (2007) and Senecah (2007) noted, the field of environmental communication (EC) emerged, in part, from Oravec’s (1984) research into the flooding of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley by the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Since then, EC research and practice has focused extensively on understanding the complex relationships between communication and natural resource management (Monani, 2008; Osmond et al., 2010; Adams, 2013; Chen & Gunster, 2016), but few papers focus on river restoration and management (Baake & Kaempf, 2011; Druschke, 2013). Substantial research gaps exist for using insights from EC and communication studies to understand the social, economic, engineering, and legal factors influencing dam decisions and to adopt systems approaches to determine the future of dams (Hart & Poff, 2002).

There is a growing acceptance across connected fields such as environmental communication (Lindenfeld et al., 2012), conservation biology (Fox et al., 2006), river restoration (Groffman et al., 2003), rhetoric of science (Druschke, 2014), and sustainability science (Holling, Berkes, & Folke, 1998), among others, that biological knowledge in isolation will not be sufficient for restoring impacted ecosystems. Biologists and ecologists must collaborate with physical and social scientists and humanists to understand how these systems work and how human attitudes, institutions, and technologies influence ecosystem condition and management (Hart & Poff, 2002; Ambers, 2007). Owing to the richness of existing data related to dam management, conflict, and controversy—in news media, social media, environmental impact statements, and management documents; and from potential interviews, surveys, and focus groups—hydropower and dam decision making offer rich and consequential sites for further communication research that is even more urgent in the face of climate change and global economic disparity.

Major Themes and Methodologies in Communication Studies about Hydropower and Dams

While there is room for much more communication research in this arena, it can build from an existing foundation emphasizing the important intersections of media and public discourse. Existing hydropower research in communication studies focuses on media framing (Rogers & Schutten, 2004; Jørgensen & Renöfält, 2012; Robinson, 2014; de Loë, 1999) and on how the framing of dam and hydropower issues shapes possibilities for countering or reinforcing state power (Tong, 2014; Ozen, 2014; Yang & Calhoun, 2007; Valenzuela, 2013; Scherman et al., 2015; Hilbert et al., 2016; Mancilla-García, 2015). Across these articles, news media and social media provide focal points for understanding dam discussions and recognizing how media have the potential to shape or co-construct perceptions about environmental issues like dams. Media often shape environmental action, and conversely, media depictions are suffused with environmental histories and “cultural resonances” (Hansen, 1991, p. 444). This co-constructive understanding of media and the environment has itself become a common focus within communication studies, including work focused on dams (Hutchins & Lester, 2006; Lester, 2006). In the following, this line of thinking is traced through the variety of communication-based dam studies that use framing as an analytical scaffold, including a subset of papers that focus on the role of framing in the shifting power dynamics between states and citizens.

Media Framing

A focus on environmental framing has offered useful insights for EC communication broadly (e.g., Nerlich & Koteyko, 2009; Wickman, 2014; Druschke, Meyerson, & Hychka, 2016) and can easily be expanded to dam research. Framing offers researchers insights into the interpretive maps that focus and organize our understandings of reality (Goffman, 1974) and impact environmental communication and policymaking (Lakoff, 2010). The framing of hydropower and dams in news media and social media can influence public awareness and spur involvement in management, empower advocates to fight for desired decision outcomes, and guide readers to focus on particular dam trade-offs and not others.

Jørgensen and Renöfält (2012), for example, focused on issue framing to contrast arguments between proponents and opponents of dam removal in Swedish news media. Performing a media discourse analysis of news articles and comments, they concluded that while the scientific community views dam removal conflicts as resolvable with the use of additional science or community outreach, issue framing could be an even more powerful factor in decision making, with opposing sides placing value on different sets of ecological services. Robinson (2014) also focused on issue framing in news media about water interests in the dammed Klamath River Basin of Oregon and California. Asking how geographic location of newspapers may have influenced their coverage and whether the issue was framed as an agricultural versus tribal dispute, Robinson’s (2014) inductive and deductive coding of newspaper articles from six sources demonstrated that location appeared to have influenced some, but not all, newspaper reporting, and that neutral issue framing was rarely used. Likewise, de Loë (1999) focused on media framing to consider the impacts of long-term news media (1975–1992) about the Oldman River Dam in Alberta, Canada. To evaluate their relative impact, de Loë compared 18 years of newspaper coverage to interviews with key informants and found that mass media, while an important force in shaping public opinion, were not necessarily capable of providing balanced analysis and, as a result, may have limited ability to stimulate government actions.

Using an ecofeminist lens to examine gendered “othering” of nature in society, Rogers and Schutten (2004) identified key themes, narratives, and ideologies present at the Hoover Dam and within interpretive materials that reveal the intentionally designed historic context and focused on the inherent presence of power dynamics in large-scale development projects. By subjugating nature through the affiliation with characteristics historically considered feminine, Rogers and Schutten (2004) argued that society is able to create discourses and identities rooted in exclusionary, binary identities and pleasures (e.g., one can stand in awe and be proud of human innovation, power, accomplishment, and triumph at the Hoover Dam without fully considering human arrogance or one’s position as an affluent beneficiary at the river’s expense).

Countering or Reinforcing State Power

A subset of dam and hydropower communication research relies on a framing analysis to hone in on the shifting power dynamics between states and citizens. A number of studies emerging from large-scale hydropower activism in Chile focus on the linkages between social media use and participation in on-the-ground protest for engaging with government policies about dams. Valenzuela (2013), for instance, used survey data to examine the relationship between social media use on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Plus and increased protest activity through the lenses of information, expression, and activism. The study concluded that using social media for expressing opinions and joining causes, but not news consumption, were important mediating mechanisms and that social media could lead to participatory behaviors. Social media, Valenzuela (2013) finds, is not so much creating new forms of protest but amplifying traditional forms of protest like street demonstrations. Scherman et al. (2015), too, built from a cross-sectional survey to examine the role of social media (Twitter and Facebook) among youth in Chile participating in protests against the construction of power plants in Patagonia and the cost of public education. Like Valenzuela (2013), Scherman et al. (2015) found a positive relationship between the use of Facebook and Twitter and participation in student demonstrations and emphasized the complementarity of offline and online actions and the relevance of social media for protest participation. Finally, they noted that traditional values such as ideology, political interest, and social capital were important factors associated with the involvement. Also focused in Chile, Hilbert et al. (2016) extended Scherman et al.’s (2015) finding, building a social network analysis of 150,000 Tweets from nine citizen protests for environmental social movements to show that long-standing paradigms for social mobilization and participation were neither replicated nor replaced but reshaped. The authors concluded that pervasiveness and presence related inversely with intensity and revealed that context influenced communication but also that perspective, and not just setting, could have a significant impact on communication.

Studies focused in China examined the relationships between institutional discourse about hydropower versus investigative journalism (Tong, 2014); mass media, alternative media, and the Internet; and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs; Yang & Calhoun, 2007). Tong (2014), through a framing analysis of Chinese newspaper investigative reports on environmental issues including dams (2008–2011), pointed to the frames offered by investigative reports about environmental problems and their difference from current institutional discourse, where nature was presented not as an enemy of humans but as vulnerable to human activities, including development. Yang and Calhoun (2007), meanwhile, pointed to a particular instance in which public controversy halted a government-sponsored dam-building project and concluded that environmental NGOs were the primary source for an emerging green public sphere because they were not faced with the same institutional constraints as Chinese mass media, alternative media, and the Internet.

Studies focused on Turkey, Tasmania, and global water organizations demonstrated the fraught relationships between centralized governments and activists (Ozen, 2014), for the sometimes surprising allegiances that can form across groups (Hutchins & Lester, 2006; Lester, 2006), and for the role of social media in consolidating mainstream discourses (Mancilla-García, 2015). Ozen (2014) relied on in-depth interviews and documentary sources, including news reports, to address the Turkish government’s strategy of framing environmental protestors of hydroelectric power plant projects as terrorists blocking political progress and development. Ozen (2014) concluded that the construction of hydropower protestors as criminalized “Others” allowed the government to protect its policies and related interests against the challenges of environmental protests by diverting public attention, discrediting protestors, and building fear within the protest groups to prevent escalation of protests and, subsequently, excluding environmental concerns from decision-making processes. Where protest was seen to divide protestors and government officials in the Turkish hydropower context, critical case studies of the Franklin Dam blockade in Tasmania focused on the possibility for political protest to unite journalists and environmentalists (Hutchins & Lester, 2006; Lester, 2006). Hutchins and Lester (2006) found that media reports about the blockade created an enduring pattern of relations between these two groups, while Lester (2006) pointed to the deployment of celebrities in environmental activism to suggest that media participate in a complex field of public interactions that collectively shape the possibilities for activism related to dams.

This focus on media framing has also been used to investigate the role of social media in shaping water controversies more broadly, arguing that social media can be used to amplify both dissenting and hegemonic voices (Mancilla-García, 2015). Drawing from 180 Tweets and 180 Facebook posts by nine global organizations working on water from different perspectives, Mancilla-García (2015) argued that social media offered interesting potential for the expression and spread of alternative discourses, but also gave dominant discourses a powerful tool for their consolidation and, therefore, did not structurally challenge the status quo.

Learning from Human Dimensions Hydropower Research Outside Communication Studies

Because the body of the existing research on dams and hydropower in communication studies is quite limited, it offers important starting points but leaves considerable room for future research. That research makes use of content analysis of news media, social media, and management documents to explore framing, political activism, and the consolidation of and resistance to hegemonic power and discourse. However, with seemingly one exception (Martin, 2007), current communication studies do not yet seem to integrate social and ecological dynamics, address possible contributions to natural resource management and dam decision making, or consider the dramatically fluid context of climate change. While research in human dimensions of hydropower is also limited, there are important themes that overlap with and could contribute to communication studies research, including (1) the role of conflict in shaping management of hydropower and dam decision making; (2) the influence of trust and state power within dam decision-making processes and outcomes; (3) the engagement of local communities with hydropower concerns and decisions; and (4) the need for interdisciplinary research about hydropower. These themes are described next with the intent that communication researchers might consider taking the discipline’s tools and frameworks to expand current research. For each theme, existing literature is summarized, and case examples are provided to detail how issues of conflict, trust, public participation, and interdisciplinarity have occurred in specific global locales and point to locations for further communication research.

Conflict in the Context of Dam Decisions

Conflict, conflict resolution, and acts of resistance are centerpieces in human dimensions research about hydropower and dams. Persson (2006) defined conflict as a “perceived divergence of interests or belief that the various stakeholders’ current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously” (p. 3). Conflict is dynamic and arises when different perspectives, values, or beliefs interact directly or indirectly (Schneider, 2000), and these conflicts are amplified by place attachment (Arlinghaus, 2005). Conflict can produce positive or negative environmental or socioeconomic changes, while also creating technical or cultural innovations (Barrow, 2010). To understand conflict, it is crucial first to understand the unique perspectives of communities and invested individuals, as central to moving forward with progressive decision-making and engagement processes (Mandarano, 2008).

The case examples in this section examine hydropower resistance and conflict: in Chile, examining the use of social media to foster collaboration within social resistance networks and the role of civic mobilization and politics in drawing public attention to environmental and social justice issues (Carruthers & Rodriguez, 2009); and, in India, exploring how communities contest hydropower projects, impeding progress and exposing a long-standing deficit of democracy (Huber & Joshi, 2015).

Case Example: Indigenous Resistance to Hydropower in Chile and India

Indigenous communities have become empowered actors in the hydropower debate, with many groups fighting to resist river development and protect ancestral territories and rights threatened by dam construction. In Chile, the Mapuche Indigenous community has taken a leading role in protesting hydropower development and forestry by reinforcing and calling upon connections to environmental organizations, human rights activists, scholars, and other indigenous groups to unite forces against developers and state power. Carruthers and Rodriguez (2009) examined the linkage of protest and social movements in Chile, including how the Mapuche, like other political groups in Chile, use social networking to further their cause through civic mobilization and awareness. They detailed how civic mobilization via social networking and linkage politics have played a central role in drawing public attention to environmental and social justice issues within Mapuche regions, but suggested that movement leaders have struggled to find meaningful channels of representation.

In India, as in Chile, accelerated hydropower projects are often met with contention because they are proposed in vulnerable ecosystems, with little consideration of risks to indigenous communities and their sovereignty. Huber and Joshi (2015) examined empirical accounts of the “antipolitical” tactics used by local communities to oppose state-led hydropower development. They detailed ways that Indian hydropower projects typically did not progress smoothly, may have led to politicization of environmental and political decision making, and lacked detailed planning, all the while exposing a long-standing democratic deficit because of public exclusion from decision-making processes. As Huber and Joshi (2015) described, because of the state’s perceived coercive tactics, impacted groups felt their communities were not taken into consideration throughout the development process. The lack of direct concern for local constituents led to inherent conflict and local resistance to state-led development efforts. Huber and Joshi (2015) argued that forward movement must entail acknowledgment of the needs, concerns, and risks of local communities.

Trust and Natural Resources Management

Human dimensions research is crucial to natural resource conflict resolution, as many approaches rely on communication and trust with involved stakeholders to prevent or resolve conflict (Arlinghaus, 2005; Gosnell & Kelly, 2010). Stern and Coleman (2015) defined trust as a multidimensional, psychological state where individuals accept forms of risk while having positive expectations of each other, regardless of inherent uncertainties. Trust is a fundamental component of collaborative resource management and decision-making processes and is a vital part of cross-boundary, interdisciplinary relationships (Hahn et al., 2006; Stern & Coleman, 2015). The existence of trust can increase public compliance with management and approval of agency decisions and can be instrumental to conflict resolution (Stern & Coleman, 2015), while distrust can limit communication, prompt resource conflict, and contribute to inequitable power distributions that limit collaborative approaches (Frank et al., 2009; Stern & Coleman, 2015).

Trust is a necessary component of collaborative processes and entails power sharing, mutual education, and information sharing among participating organizations and agencies. Building mutual trust through equitable management practices encourages and empowers stakeholders to use local knowledge, develop emotional commitment, share experiences, and build new social relationships (Blann et al., 2003). Ecosystem management increasingly requires collaborations across social, political, and geographical boundaries. Collaborative partnerships emerging from mutual trust benefit ecosystems and society, while also contributing to conflict resolution and better decision making. The following examples point to the importance of trust-building in dam decision-making processes, but would benefit from deeper analyses of trust available through communication studies approaches and theories.

Case Example: Hydropower Development in the Mekong River, China, and the Klamath River Basin in the United States

Although in recent history the Mekong was one of the world’s largest undammed rivers, it now faces hydropower development proposals from the multiple countries it flows through. China is proposing a series of fourteen hydropower projects on the Mekong’s upstream reaches, Laos another nine, and Cambodia has contributed two proposals for hydropower projects (The Economist, 2016). Specifically in China, this move would generate considerable power (15,000 MW) but would negatively impact biodiversity, decrease ecosystem service values of the Lower Mekong Basin, and undercut the livelihoods and food security of millions of residents in a region already characterized by high rates of poverty and low technological infrastructure (Grumbine & Xu, 2011). Dam operators and investors are expected to derive direct financial gains from exclusive rights to an estimated $3.7 billion/year income during the first 25 years (Grumbine & Xu, 2011), but hydropower development may cause a loss of fishing resources, inundate river bank gardens, and reduce nutrient deposits for floodplain agriculture for local residents, totaling approximately $500 million/year in accumulated damages (Grumbine & Xu, 2011). Unequal distribution of cost-benefits and a lack of government transparency and predevelopment monitoring contribute to local distrust of management decisions and uncertainty of hydropower development outcomes (Grumbine & Xu, 2011). Thus, Grumbine and Xu (2011) suggested that communicating across transnational boundaries could help build trust and initiate contentious dialogue about future development of the Mekong River.

Unlike this lack of trust in the Mekong case, Gosnell and Kelly (2010) pointed to meaningful trust as providing foundational support for contentious but collaborative hydropower management in the Klamath River Basin in the United States. Diverse community groups came together, first through formal legal settings and then informally after the discovery of their connections to, and relationships with, the Klamath Basin. The Klamath’s sociopolitical landscape inspired the 2010 Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA)—linked to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA)—which will likely lead to one of the largest dam removal projects in the world. The legal framework—including tribal trust responsibility, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Power Act—and inclusive negotiation encouraged participants to compromise on decisions to form legally and politically viable solutions to long-standing Klamath River disputes. Tribal and nontribal interests were able to unite in formal and informal contexts, with trust-building and communication as catalysts for these working relationships. Agreements reached by the Klamath stakeholders were crafted to solve ecological, economic, and social concerns, while also shifting power toward a “bottom-up” approach to governance (Gosnell & Kelly, 2010).

Public Participation and Collaboration in Dam Decision Making

Successful public participation and collaboration require understanding public opinions of resource concerns and the potential influence they might have on management success and decision making capacity (Connelly et al., 2002). Examining human subjectivities, or internal frames of reference, can provide natural resource agencies with data about specific problems faced by management (Sexton et al., 2011) and can provide direction for outreach and engagement approaches, encouraging increased public support for policies and their success (Fraley, 1996). Engagement with public discourse can also enhance the success of collaborative planning and management, which encourages broad stakeholder involvement, relationship building, trust-building, mutual understanding, innovative problem solving, social change, and community engagement in policy concerns (Mandarano, 2008).

Decision makers have begun to recognize the role that collaboration can play in understanding the impacts of management actions on constituents and the power constituents have over management outcomes (Reed et al., 2009). Identification of impacted stakeholders is key, as it is equally important to empower, not marginalize, groups affected by management decisions through inclusive collaboration. Although stakeholder inclusion is important, it is not necessarily an indication of partnership success (Mandarano, 2008). Promotion of environmental awareness alone does not lead to meaningful engagement if members of the public are not provided a sense of being capable to change their own situation or the wider world (Sleenoff & Osseweijer, 2015).

Case Example: Global Public Participation

The Klamath negotiations offer an example of a successful collaborative partnership in action (Gosnell & Kelly, 2010). The bottom-up governance framework that allowed for community-based resource management through collaboration and compromise is the key that led to social, political, and legal agreements that appear to be mutually beneficial. Social, economic, and environmental solutions were decided upon through active conflict resolution and engagement of federal, state, and local communities with key stakeholder groups. Over time, negotiators were able to expand concern for local issues, improve communication, and build trust among members of the collaborative.

In contrast, on the contentious Mekong, proposed hydropower development has an associated misconception that public health prevention measures are too costly, which has caused health concerns to be neglected or minimally enacted (Guerrier et al., 2011). An exception is the Nam Theun 2 hydropower station on the Mekong, Laos. The dam’s diverse operations staff, composed of public, private, and local partners, has developed policies directed at balancing hydroelectric production with responsible social and environmental programs that include strengthening the provincial public health infrastructure. Incorporated into dam development, local communities were provided access to increased resources and curative and preventative medicine, in addition to clean water supplies and sanitation infrastructure. Such health benefits have been provided in a cost effective way (0.2% of overall project development budget) and call for more resources to be provided to dam-impacted communities (Guerrier et al., 2011).

Social impacts related to the racial, class, and gendered cost-benefit inequalities of hydroelectric production are particularly, but not exclusively, the case in the global south, where hydropower projects tend to impact indigenous communities significantly (Braun, 2011). Braun (2011) discussed how racial, class, and gendered inequalities were reproduced through the labor organization at large-scale development project sites, in this case, in communities at or near the development site of the Katse Dam, Lesotho, South Africa. Braun (2011) used participant observation and formal and informal interviews to investigate the relationships between foreign developers and local communities. Braun (2011) suggested that the militarization of communities built for foreign workforces acted to perpetuate racial, gendered, and class inequalities—especially for local women—and pointed to the inherent contradictions embodied by neoliberal ideologies (Braun, 2011). Similar social inequalities are potentially present at most dam development sites; however, there is limited inquiry into these problems, leaving a rich space for future hydropower research.

The Need for Interdisciplinary Approaches

Human dimension researchers, biologists, scientists, and managers continue to endorse the use of interdisciplinary methods, public inclusion, and transboundary concepts in ecological studies, as broad public support can make or break management decisions and restoration projects (Johnson & Graber, 2002; Arlinghaus, 2005). Interdisciplinary dialogue and synthetic approaches are essential for creating public policies that can sustain the planet’s life support systems, enable inclusive discussions, and establish collaborative partnerships (Hart & Poff, 2002). The importance of subjective stakeholder values in decision making about environmental concerns highlights the urgent need for comprehensive education integrated with research and equally distributed decision-making power (Firth, 1998). Within these important interdisciplinary approaches, these scholars need to bring their research to bear on current dam and hydropower issues (Bednarek, 2001).

Marzano and Dandy (2012) argued for greater integration of social science methodologies and epistemologies with ecological studies to improve research and management of socioecological interactions. Integrating sociological data—individual and community values, attitudes, and behavior—with ecological studies has the potential to promote effective, socially accepted management decisions (Marzano & Dandy, 2012). Johnson and Graber (2002) also discussed the positive contribution that human dimensions and science communication make to the development of management protocols. Interdisciplinary collaboration can provide information to help communities make informed, locally appropriate decisions about the future of hydropower.

As biological knowledge is not enough to make decisions about the future of dams, collaborative approaches that feature local engagement are necessary for developing increasingly sustainable public policies about hydropower and dam infrastructure (Hart & Poff, 2002). Cross-boundary, interdisciplinary research can contribute to accurate inventories of aquatic barriers, while watershed-scale collaborations across disciplinary boundaries can encourage constituent groups—public, private, federal, state, local, and so on—to work together to achieve transboundary improvements at multiple social-ecological scales (Magilligan et al., 2016).

Case Example: Interdisciplinary Hydropower Research in Nepal

Nepal has a high potential for hydropower capacity, but a low rate of dam building and hydroelectric consumption (Nepal, 2012; Sovacool et al., 2011). To understand why Nepal utilizes such a small portion of potential hydropower (less than 0.8%), particularly as the country develops and energy demands increase, researchers have taken varying approaches to conducting environmental, political, and social research.

Sovacool et al. (2011) took a sociotechnical systems theory approach to reveal barriers to commercialization of new hydropower technologies in Nepal. These barriers are simultaneously social—consisting of values, attitudes, regulations, and price signals—as well as technical. Complex interactions mean that deforestation contributes to sediment that clogs turbines and decreases power generation capacity (Sovacool et al., 2011), while the lack of large power grid infrastructure to distribute power limits the use, reliability, and potential profitability of hydroelectricity (Sovacool et al., 2011). Poverty is also a major barrier to hydropower development—42% of the population is officially classified as “in poverty”—with agriculture accounting for 80% of local employment (Sovacool et al., 2011).

Technology and infrastructure alone will not allow for increasing hydropower capacity in Nepal; national and community leaders would need to construct an entire enabling environment for hydropower to succeed (Sovacool et al., 2011), while attending to the significant hydropower trade-offs detailed above, including remedying disproportionate impacts on disempowered communities. Where Nepal (2012) suggests the government provide subsidies and loans to encourage off-the-grid rural electricity generation, there is no consideration of the larger social implications of this recommendation. These studies offer examples of how cross-boundary, interdisciplinary research has the potential to increase the viability of academic recommendations about hydropower and contribute to more comprehensive decision making that takes into account the best interests of communities, their economies, and the environment.

Recognizing and Studying the Influence of Communication in Natural Resources Management

Communication is a vital component of comprehensive natural resources management. The above discussions of conflict, trust, engagement, and interdisciplinary collaboration underscore the need to integrate a more explicit focus on communication in human dimensions research about dams. Although the above studies focus on various aspects of communication, the direct connection to communication as a deep field of study in most cases is underdeveloped or absent.

The first step in developing collaborative approaches for successful management and restoration decisions is to understand who constituents are, what their values, beliefs, and attitudes are concerning a topic of inquiry, and how these variables are communicated. As Mandarano (2008) asserts, facilitating open discussions about contentious topics can encourage constituents to engage in mutual learning and knowledge-sharing, and encourage mutually beneficial solutions to complex problems. Awareness of conflicting public narratives can facilitate initial dialogue between policymakers, decision makers, and members of the public (Sleenoff & Osseweijer, 2015). Opening space for dialogue encourages divergent groups to use their individual knowledge in communicating expectations and opportunities for collaboration. However, the role that scientists play as communicators may influence whether society responds to emerging issues, such as decisions about the future of dams, as problems or as opportunities (Johnson & Graber, 2002), or responds to issues at all.

Communication plays a central role in alternative management approaches, as in the case of the “tapestry” model, which incorporates a woven design of enlightenment, discovery, understanding, and action. Communication also requires active and ongoing communication between researchers, educators, and decision makers over an extended period of time (Firth, 1998). Better and increased communication of scientific research to the public is needed to foster collaborative and inclusive management with engaged stakeholders in management activities and decision-making processes (Arlinghaus, 2006).

Human dimensions and interdisciplinary studies frequently discuss the positive impact that communication can have on management and the future sustainability of resources without critically engaging with communication studies specifically, thereby setting the stage for deeper engagement by environmental communication and communication studies researchers and more critical attention to contextual or iterative models of communication (Gross, 1994; Druschke & Hychka, 2015). Wyrick et al. (2009), for instance, used survey methods on two lakes to discover that local communities did not support a removal project, believing that dam removal would cause their property value to depreciate and worrying about a perceived risk of increased flooding. Residents’ concerns were rooted in economic and aesthetic interests, while policymakers in favor of removal were predominantly focused on the risks to human health and safety as a result of potential dam failure. In order to find common ground between policymakers, scientists, and landowners, Wyrick et al. (2009) suggested that increased communication had the potential to offer the generation and inclusion of informed and educated communities in dam-related projects. The human dimensions focus on increased communication would benefit from the subtle analyses and frameworks of communication studies that look to the quality of communication and not just the quantity.

Martin (2007), for instance, investigated communication failures in an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of Allain Duhangan hydropower project, India, which (1) failed to provide adequate access to information; (2) predetermined EIA outcomes by controlling the definition of concerns; (3) privileged scientific and technical discourse over other forms of knowledge and discourse; and (4) utilized consultative forms of communication and promoted one-way flow of information as opposed to more interactive models that encouraged joint construction of information and values. Instead, public participation could have offered the potential to create a space where multiple narratives could be acknowledged and fully considered. Martin (2007) and similar communication-rich researchers acknowledge the need to better understand why practices that limit public involvement persist, why practices that enhance public involvement are often resisted, and by whom. Next, case examples presented from the Belo Monte Dam, Brazil, and the Klamath River Basin point to the significance and difficulty of public involvement in hydropower decision making.

Case Example: Communication and Advocacy for the Belo Monte Dam and the Klamath River Basin.

Brazil, with its powerful history of activist resistance to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam (Bratman, 2014), offers an ideal case of avenues for communication in advocacy networks. The Belo Monte Dam, which would be one of the largest hydroelectric dam projects in the world, has been in litigation since the 1970s, and the design has been continuously altered in an attempt to gain the public and political support needed to start construction. While the Belo Monte has a majority of national political support, its construction has been met with large-scale social resistance at local, national, and international levels. While these groups appear to fight for the same cause, some groups or organizations have fractured from primary objectives, allowing for the state to maintain power and circumvent many social and environmental justice concerns. Communication between national and international activist groups described as transnational advocacy networks (TANs) have in part allowed Belo Monte resistance to gain traction and impede development (Bratman, 2014). TANs, which are voluntary, reciprocal, and horizontal exchanges of knowledge and information, have offered a direct process for sharing, including, and bringing local concerns to the global level.

Like the Belo Monte case, Klamath Basin negotiations offer rich potential for human dimensions and communication studies research as they feature a large variety of stakeholders invested in decision making and collaborative partnerships. Sustained communication through the confidential negotiation process provided a space for stakeholders to find common ground, contributing to conflict resolution, restoration project agreement, and inclusive learning opportunities. Gosnell and Kelly (2010) noted improved communication as critical to development of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. Interestingly, success in the Klamath came when leaders of stakeholder groups turned away from traditional legal and political negotiating arenas and adopted more informal and consistent communication, which offered opportunities for meaningful collaboration, knowledge sharing (traditional/local ecological knowledge), and the redevelopment of relationships between long-time adversaries (Gosnell & Kelly, 2010).

Summary of Themes and Next Steps for Research

Human dimensions research on dams has focused on the role of conflict, trust, public participation and collaboration, and the need for interdisciplinarity, but communication is implicated, though not directly examined, in the bulk of this research. Thus, although there is a small but growing body of knowledge related to the human dimensions of dams and hydropower development, major gaps within this body of literature remain, primarily at the intersection of human dimensions and communication research. The limits of existing research offer significant space for communication researchers to concentrate efforts designed to understand the larger implications of hydropower development and how decision-making processes can be improved through examinations of current and historical regions of hydropower conflict and consensus. Communication researchers are poised to contribute more sophisticated and nuanced treatments of communication in hydropower research, building from existing interest in dam communication arising in human dimensions work about dams and hydropower.

The following presents an example of a new, cross-disciplinary project in New England, focused on decision making about dams. The project works to address conflict, trust, public participation, and interdisciplinarity through the deep integration of research in communication and rhetoric with social-ecological approaches, attempting to intervene in real-time decision making about dams.

The Future of Dams: Cross-Disciplinary, Place-Based Possibilities for Studying Hydropower and Dam Communication

In the fall of 2015, a multistate collaboration known as the New England Sustainability Consortium (NEST) received a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation to study decision making about dams in coastal New England. The NEST collaborative brings researchers across natural and social sciences and humanities disciplines together with federal, state, municipal, and nonprofit managers and community stakeholders. “The Future of Dams,” as the project has come to be known, examines economic, technological, ecological, social, and political trade-offs associated with decisions about dams. The project emerged from researchers’ keen interest in hydropower and the reality that more than 50 New England dams are up for hydropower relicensing in the next decade. Owing to inherent trade-offs—dams can provide energy, water supply, and recreational benefits but can have adverse impacts on ecosystems and economies and pose risks to human health and safety—dam decision making increasingly resembles a wicked problem. In response, the Future of Dams brings collaborators in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine together to empower stakeholders to make decisions about dams by combining the best available science with diverse forms of community engagement.

Central to this work is an interdisciplinary approach to community engagement that incorporates diverse forms of communication through science informed by dynamic collaboration models, role-play simulations, and stakeholder-grounded workshops. In addition to advancing research on dams, these activities also seek to build trust, promote communication, support collaboration across boundaries, and foster engagement with local communities, goals that reflect the key themes emerging from the dam research detailed earlier.

Within these diverse interdisciplinary activities, researchers on the project are using their expertise to evaluate dam decision making in different temporal, geographic, and cultural contexts. The authors’ own expertise lies in communication and rhetoric, and the result is a description of a case study of a nearly complete river restoration effort that exemplifies how dams exist at the nexus of diverse communication approaches that together illustrate the possibilities for effective community-engaged research and action. The case study is presented in brief to offer a model for how researchers in communication and rhetoric might approach, learn from, and contribute to decision making about dams in the context of a changing climate. The Penobscot River Restoration Project was fundamentally shaped by communication in diverse ways, and though some characteristics of the media discourse about dams in this long-term effort are now beginning to be understood, there remains a need to identify the multiple ways in which factors such as conflict, power, trust, and collaboration shaped the development of this project.

The Penobscot River Restoration and Hydropower Capacity Project

This case focuses on the Penobscot River Restoration Project (Penobscot Project) in Maine. As a modification of the original project’s title, hydropower capacity is included here because, as those involved in this project are quick to point out, the Penobscot Project resulted in improved fish passage and increased recreational opportunities, as well as sustained hydropower capacity in a basin-scale approach (Opperman, Royte, Banks, Rose Day, & Apse, 2011). In other words, instead of a mere win–win for stakeholders interested in fish passage and recreation, according to many invested individuals, the Penobscot Project achieved a win–win–win because hydropower capacity was not compromised as a result. This case example intends to demonstrate the importance of seeking “alternatives that achieve the greatest balance of energy production and environmental health and [implementing] those alternatives the first time, not after a century of environmental and social impacts” (Opperman et al., 2011, p. 9). This description of the Penobscot Project case draws from a review of newspaper and journal articles, technical reports, project websites, and informal interviews with participants. Across these artifacts, it is clear that this project was able to accomplish the objectives of removal, restoration, and increased hydropower generation through an interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration that spanned more than a decade (Banks & Rose Day, 2014) and that this success was shaped, in part, by media communication.

The Penobscot River is the largest river in Maine and the second largest in New England, with a watershed of 2 million hectares and 8,800 km (approximately 5,500 miles) of river stem and tributary. As a point of reference, if one were to assemble the river and its tributaries into a straight line, the river would flow from Maine south through the United States into Mexico and end at the border of Colombia in South America. The watershed is 95% forested and serves as a primary source of freshwater into the Gulf of Maine (Opperman et al., 2011). Thus, the Penobscot is an ecologically significant river, and it is also culturally valuable. The Wabanaki people, a confederacy that today includes the Penobscot Nation and MicMac, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy Tribes, have inhabited the Penobscot River watershed for at least 9,000 years (Sanger, Belcher, & Kellogg, 1992). The Penobscot Nation draws its name, Burnurwurbskek, from the sound of water flowing over rocks at a specific site within the river; the entire river was later named for this sound and the river’s people (Phillips, 2006).

The construction of more than 250 dams during the Industrial Revolution muffled this sound and fundamentally changed the ecological and cultural life on the river (Opperman et al., 2011). The natural and human communities that depend on the river have also been negatively affected by toxic pollution from mills that used the dams for hydropower. The Penobscot Nation, which has historically relied on fish for sustenance, faces a higher risk of cancer owing to the persistent toxic contamination of water and sediments and has been advised to limit the consumption of fish for this reason (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014). In addition to the negative impact of the dams on the tribe’s cultural history and way of life, these dams were a major impediment to the migration of 11 native fish species, including shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic salmon (federally listed as endangered), Atlantic sturgeon (federally listed as threatened), alewives, blueback herring, rainbow smelt (National Marine Fisheries Service species of concern), and American eel, among others (Opperman et al., 2011).

Recognizing the social-environmental impacts of these dams, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust (Trust) formed and initiated the Penobscot River Restoration Project. Major project partners included the Penobscot Nation, Atlantic Salmon Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the State of Maine, and hydropower companies PPL Corporation and Black Bear Hydro. In 2004, these and other partners signed the Lower Penobscot River Multiparty Settlement Agreement, which established a blueprint for removing dams and increasing hydropower generating capacity. This agreement was “the result of thousands of hours of painstaking and complicated negotiations over four years” that resulted in a plan that was “comprehensive, bold in its vision, and fair to all Parties and the interests they represent, and carefully balanced. And it is a settlement of which the Parties are extremely proud” (Lower Penobscot River Multiparty Settlement Agreement, 2004, p. 11). One of the first and most significant parts of the agreement was that the PPL Corporation agreed to sell the Veazie and Great Works dams to the Trust for approximately $24 million for the Trust’s subsequent dam removal. The removal of these hydropower dams as a singular strategy would have resulted in the loss of approximately 90,000 MWH of energy per year hydropower generating capacity. To balance this loss, the agreement identified strategies for increasing hydropower capacity at six other sites in the watershed. In addition to technical provisions such as these, the agreement also noted the importance of public participation and that communities along the river would have opportunities to learn about progress and provide input as the project developed (Project Fact Sheet, 2012). The Trust also pursued monitoring and scientific studies to inform their strategies and understand the ecological impacts of their decisions over time (e.g., Trinko-Lake, Ravana, & Saunders, 2012).

The process and outcomes from this project were shaped by communication broadly, and media communication proved to be a particularly important component in at least two ways. First, this project received significant press, with more than 150 articles over the course of two decades that have appeared in local, state, and national newspapers. These articles emphasize the importance of the project for fish restoration, hydropower generation, and cultural meaning (Randall, McGreavy, & Druschke, 2016). Second, the Trust made a clear and concentrated effort to create and archive project materials on a comprehensive website ( Access to information is essential to effective participation in environmental decision making (Senecah, 2004; Walker, Senecah, & Daniels, 2006). Though public participation also occurred through public hearings, community presentations, project events, and other fora, the online repository of materials represents an overall commitment to effective public participation and evidence that the Trust succeeded in upholding its agreement to keep community members informed about the project over time.

The Future of Communication Research about Dams and Hydropower

This extensive review of communication and human dimensions research about dams and related natural resource issues reveals key themes that point to major social factors influencing perceptions and decisions about dams and hydropower. These themes include the ways that media frame dams; how media framing reinforces or challenges entrenched systems of power; and the influential roles of conflict, trust, public participation, and collaboration, and exigencies for interdisciplinarity. Existing research on the social issues related to dams barely scratches the surface of what needs to be studied and understood. More importantly, beyond the need to better understand dams as posing complex and wicked problems characterized by multiple social and ecological values, there is an urgent need to bring this knowledge to bear on efforts to decide, from local to global scales, what to do with dams. Doing so is made more complicated when it is acknowledged how individuals and communities, nested within social-ecological systems, have pressing and sometimes competing needs related to water, energy, fish passage, cultural values, and more in an era of global climate change.

Thus, specific recommendations for shaping this research agenda are presented next, some of which will be advanced in the Future of Dams project, but all of which would benefit from the contributions of researchers in communication and rhetoric working from particular locations across the globe. This research agenda proposes to: expand existing communication research about dams and diversify its approaches and subjects; consider how dams offer insights into existing environmental communication theories and pedagogies; explore real-time interventions into dam decision-making contexts; and more earnestly engage with research and researchers outside of communication studies to co-create knowledge about complex social-ecological systems.

There is an immediate need and opportunity to expand existing communication research about dams. Though one of the earliest papers in environmental communication focused on how public arguments about dams shaped the ways that people perceive and relate to the environment (Oravec, 1984), very little research continues this topical focus in communication studies. Research that does exist focuses mainly on framing analyses in news media and some social media, which, though useful, come nowhere near exhausting the scope of approaches throughout communication studies and rhetoric. There are rich possibilities for integrating field methodologies—including ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and focus groups—with theoretical insights and approaches emerging in rhetoric of science, actor network theory, animal studies, and critical feminism, among other fields (Druschke and Rai, in press). Further, existing communication studies of dams focus on relatively few locations and, while some studies examine discourse over time, virtually none focuses on what can be learned across cases or on nested decisions throughout a watershed. Thus, there is significant room for other methodological, theoretical, and analytical approaches.

The lack of communication research is particularly noteworthy when considered in relation to the ubiquity of the approximately 800,000 dams on the planet and how each of these dams is situated within a unique context, with competing social and ecological values and inherent trade-offs. As there are no inherently right or wrong answers about dams, these dams pose the ultimate wicked problems in need of interdisciplinary and communication-informed approaches to complex problem solving. The question “What do we do with our dams?” is on the lips of citizens, tribal groups, regulators, natural resource managers, hydropower companies, researchers, and funders, among others. Communication, as it has been studied in a host of related natural resource issues, offers diverse approaches that will be of value in constructing a collective response. A key commitment in constructing this response will be to connect communication and interdisciplinary research with active decision making through research, community engagement, and pedagogy. Existing critical and media studies of dams provide a foundation on which researchers can examine media and public discourses, understand diverse perspectives about dams, identify relationships between decision-making processes and potential outcomes, and use these insights to inform active engagement in real-time dam and hydropower decision making.

The complexity of dam-related issues and the uncertainty about trade-offs compounded by climate change require that, in addition to increasing the communication focus on dams, researchers should simultaneously build interdisciplinary research programs and cross boundaries between communication and human dimensions research, build from the growing body of research in physical and ecological research related to dams (reviewed in Bellmore et al., 2016), and cross national borders. There is a need for globally integrated research, especially for exploring more deeply a growing body of research about communication and human dimensions of dams appearing in languages other than English (Germaine, 2011; Germaine & Barraud, 2013a; Germaine & Barraud, 2013b; Flaminio, 2016). In addition, researchers are strongly encouraged to build a much needed body of knowledge in least three key integrated research areas: environmental justice; health; and the relationships between natural resource values and behavior.

Issues associated with inequality and environmental justice stand at the forefront in many dam and hydropower contexts, particularly in relation to large-scale development of hydropower projects in the global south, but are also overlooked in local decisions on small and large dams throughout the world. The research focus within this arena is slowly building; however, the current foundation of academic exploration into inequality and environmental justice leaves a great deal of uncharted environmental justice research potential, especially in relation to hydropower as it is influenced by climate change. On a related front are health concerns associated with dam implementation—including diseases such as malaria, hemorrhagic fevers, intestinal parasites, and other water-quality-related health issues that are worsening over time (Lerer & Scudder, 1999)—that will demand a mixed-methods approach that takes into consideration how local communities conceptualize and mitigate impacts. In the realm of health and beyond, a richly contextual approach to communicating risk will be essential (Boholm, 2009) and could be strengthened by connecting human dimensions with communication research. A similar need exists for ecosystem management and restoration efforts because the sustainability of sound management is rooted in stakeholder support as people systematically use the information available to them to shape their beliefs and attitudes about certain actions before deciding to actually take action. Connelly et al. (2002), in their study of restoration projects in the Hudson River estuary in New York, demonstrated the need for active public outreach and involvement even in noncontroversial situations. This need can be better served by diverse insights drawn from communication, psychology, economics, and human dimensions of natural resources in forestry, fisheries, aquatic and marine sciences, and related contexts.

Further, the ubiquity of dams makes them ripe for active learning in classrooms and communities (McGreavy et al., 2016). Students can connect what they are learning in their communication courses with dam-related issues and, ideally, become directly involved in these efforts by forming relationships with stakeholders, attending public meetings, and directing their coursework to meet needs for information and communication-based recommendations. At the University of Rhode Island, located in the United States’ smallest state featuring 600-plus dams, Druschke and faculty in hydrology and landscape architecture have focused on dams to teach freshmen to doctoral students about environmental rhetoric and communication, community activism, environmental pedagogy, river restoration, and watershed-based conservation. Students have learned from community partners and have intervened in local dam decision making through the creation of lesson plans for elementary-aged children about dams and migratory fish populations; the drafting of environmental impact statements; and the production of informational signage about dam impacts. The University of Maine sits on an island in the Penobscot River, adjacent to one of the most significant dam-removal and river restoration efforts in the world, the Penobscot River Restoration Project described earlier. McGreavy and Quiring have taken a service learning approach to integrate this project into their environmental communication courses, including a course for a large lecture class of more than 200 students. Informed by guest lectures, a field trip, and a semester-long case study, students created websites, videos, and creative performances and shared them publicly so that other people could connect communication perspectives and dam and hydropower decision making. Student collaborators working on the Future of Dams project from the University of Rhode Island, University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, University of Southern Maine, Rhode Island School of Design, and Keene State University are contributing to cross-disciplinary decision making about dams through a diverse set of dissertations, major papers, and undergraduate projects ranging from communication studies to biological and environmental sciences.

In short, the exchange between Chouinard and Ciocci that kicked off this review is just one conversation in a cacophony of debate and dialogue focused on dams and hydropower. While communication and human dimensions studies have identified some characteristics of this global conversation through analyses of media, conflict negotiation, and public participation and collaboration, researchers have yet to fully engage in interdisciplinary discussions about these issues or with communities where decisions about dams and hydropower are being made with more urgency every day.


Support for this project is provided by the National Science Foundation’s Research Infrastructure Improvement #IIA-1539071, with additional support from the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement #EPS-1004057.

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