University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Experiments on Rivers: The Consequences of Dams — An Interdisciplinary Conference, Nov. 2010

November 12, 2010IASEvents, | Conferences1

“In the view of conservationists, there is something special about dams, something…metaphysically sinister….the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam.”

John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid (1971)

Dams have been characterized as “long-term experiments on rivers,” and as affronts to the freedom embodied in flowing rivers. But they also provide needed hydroelectric power to many parts of the world, and serve as important regulators of floods. Dams represent tremendous concentrations of engineering expertise, capital, and political power in the developing world, and they disrupt biological and hydrological processes. Yet they keep getting built.

This conference brings together diverse experts from a range of academic practices and disciplines to examine the phenomena of dams and the consequences, intended and unintended, that accrue from their construction.  The sessions entail a broadly dialogic approach, with perspectives focusing on global as well as more localized frames of reference, critical and theoretical perspectives as well as immanent and pragmatic views, and the understandings derived from biological and physical sciences as well as disciplines that might be thought of as the “human sciences.”

Our intentions with the conference are to raise questions and explore complexities, to provoke reflection from consideration of new perspectives, and to suggest future lines of inquiry in diverse disciplines and practices.  Our sessions will most likely not speak directly to present questions of removal of actual dams, but will, we hope, suggest areas of research, policy, and thinking that can guide future actions.

The conference is free and open to the public, however, space is limited and pre-registration is advised. Box lunches will be available for conference attendees who register by November 9. You may register by contacting the Institute for Advanced Study at or 612-626-5054.

This conference is organized by these University of Minnesota programs: the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC), the Institute on the Environment (IonE), and the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL). The conference is part of the University Symposium on Abundance and Scarcity, with support from the University’s Office of the Vice President of Researchthe Office of International Programs Global Spotlight, and the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) with funding from the National Science Foundation.


Thursday, Nov. 11

Keynote – Concrete Revolution: Cold War Geopolitics and the Proliferation of Large Dams, 1933-1975 – A talk by Christopher Sneddon (Environmental Studies and Geography, Dartmouth College).
4:00 p.m., 125 Nolte Center

Friday, Nov. 12

Events to be held in the auditorium of the St. Anthony Falls Lab on Hennepin Island in the Mississippi River. Parking is available in Lab lot or at the corner of 3rd Ave. SE and 2nd St. SE:

9:00-9:15: Welcome and Introductory Remarks (click on link for video)

Welcome: Ann Waltner (Director of IAS and Professor of History, UMN)

Welcome: Efi Foufoula-Georgiou (Director of NCED and former Director of SAFL, UMN)

Introduction to the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory: Karen Campbell (NCED, UMN)

9:15-10:45: Session I: From Local to Global:  Dams as Issues for Communities and Nations (click on link for video) 
Morning sessions chair: Phyllis Messenger (IAS, UMN)

“Dam Indians: The Ojibwe and Industries That Built Minnesota,” Anton Treuer (Ojibwe, Bemidji State University)

“Damming the Zambezi: Displaced People, Displaced Memories,” Allen Isaacman (History, UMN)

Response by Roopali Phadke (Environmental Studies, Macalester) and Wang Ping (English, Macalester)

11:00-12:30 Session II: Dams and Culture (click on link for video)

“Dams and Shifting Cultures of Governance–Learning through Doing?” Leila Harris (Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, University of British Columbia)

“Cultural Heritage Management and Dams: Assessing Site Significance, Evaluating Impacts, and Developing a Mitigation Plan,” George Smith (former associate director, Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service)

Response by Rob Gilmer (History, UMN) and Karen Campbell

Lunch (Box lunches with advance registration by Nov. 9 – contact

1:45-3:15 Session III: Dams, Science, and the Law (click on link for video)
Afternoon sessions chair: Pat Nunnally (River Life Program, IonE, UMN)

“What Do We Know about the Response of Rivers to Dams?” Gordon Grant (USDA Forest Service)

“Tribes, Treaties, and Dammed Tribulations,” David Wilkins (American Indian Studies, UMN)

Response by Farhana Sultana (Geography, Syracuse University) and Christopher Sneddon

3:30-5:00: Session IV: Where Might We Go from Here? (click on link for video)

“Where the Cool Water Flows,” Terry Cook (Sustainable Rivers Initiative, The Nature Conservancy)

“The Once and Future King,” Mark Gorman (Upper Mississippi River Basin Task Force, Northeast-Midwest Institute)

Response by Pat Nunnally


Karen Campbell is the education director for the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, based at the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.

Terry Cook is director of the Mid-Atlantic Conservation Science Center for the Nature Conservancy. He has been involved with the development of ecoregional conservation assessments and improving and refining the Conservancy’s conservation process.

Efi Foufoula-Georgiou is the director of the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, former director of the Saint Anthony Falls Laboratory, and Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Joseph T. and Rose S. Ling Chair in Environmental Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests are in the area of stochastic modeling of surface hydrologic and geomorphologic processes.

Rob Gilmer is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Minnesota. In the fall of 2010, he is teaching Oil and Water: The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010.

Mark Gorman is a policy analyst for the Upper Mississippi River Basin Task Force of the Northeast-Midwest Institute. The Institute is a Washington-based, private, non-profit, and non-partisan research organization dedicated to economic vitality, environmental quality, and regional equity for Northeast and Midwest states.

Gordon Grant is a Research Hydrologist for the USDA Forest Service and a professor in the Departments of Geosciences, Forest Engineering & Forest Science at Oregon State University. His research interests include watershed analysis and watershed and stream response to changing land use and climate.

Leila Harris* is a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research to date has focused primarily on water politics in the Middle East/ Turkey, water governance in the Global South, and gender dimensions of resource use and access.

Allen Isaacman is Regents Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, and former director of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change. His research focuses on the political history of Southern Africa, especially Mozambique, including issues surrounding the building of the Cahora Bassa Dam on the Zambezi River.

Pat Nunnally is the coordinator of the River Life Program for the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. As a consulting historian and interpretive planner, he works to establish lasting relationships among the University and the communities engaged in riverfront revitalization along the Mississippi River.

Roopali Phadke is a professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College. Her research focuses on private and public development of water and energy resources.

Wang Ping is a professor of English at Macalester College. Her areas of study integrate writing and poetry with such issues as environmental justice, rivers, and humans in Minnesota, China, and elsewhere.

George Smith teaches cultural heritage management at Florida State University and was associate director of the Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service. His archaeological research in Alaska and elsewhere has included work on environmental impact assessments related to hydroelectric projects.

Christopher Sneddon* is a professor of Environmental Studies and Geography at Dartmouth College. His research focuses on the political ecology of river basin development, primarily in Southeast Asia.

Farhana Sultana* is a professor of Geography at Syracuse University. She focuses on such areas as political ecology, environmental management, water governance, and gender, particularly in South Asia.

Anton Treuer* is a professor of Ojibwe in the Languages and Ethnic Studies Department at the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University. His research focuses on Ojibwe history, culture, and language, including modern-day issues of sovereignty and identity.

David Wilkins is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on issues of native governments, judicial policy, and federal Indian policy.

*Ph.D., UMN and participant in ICGC Fellows Program (formerly known as MacArthur Fellows Program)

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  1. Videos from the Dam Conference | River LifeMarch 4, 2015 at 5:17 pmReply

    […] part of the conference, all of the presentations were recorded and the videos are available here: As we move forwards and continue our work, especially in light of this recent conference, we are […]

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