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Unit 1: Introduction to the hydrologic cycle and stakeholder analysis

Bruce Douglas, Indiana University (
Eric Small, University of Colorado (


This unit introduces the hydrological cycle to provide context for the module as a whole. It particularly focuses on those portions of the hydrological cycle that take place on land and that form the basis for water that is used by society. Students conduct a stakeholder analysis to better understand societal issues around water. Then the scientific exercise of the unit emphasizes quantitative approaches to describing the critical portions that humans have access to: surface water and shallow ground water. Students calculate residence times and fluxes between reservoirs and track water particles on an annual basis. They also explore available data sets for specific reservoirs such as snowpack and rivers.

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Learning Goals

Unit 1 Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to

  • Identify and describe the spatial and temporal relationships that exist between the different reservoirs within the hydrological cycle and determine those most important for societal needs.
  • Assess the variability in residence times and fluxes for the main reservoirs in the hydrological cycle and describe potential pathways through the cycle.
  • Evaluate the relationship between the water needs of society and the type and availability of water to fill those needs.

Unit 1 Teaching Objectives

  • Cognitive: Facilitate the students' ability to evaluate changes in water availability, given access to data. Demonstrate the connection between variations in the various reservoirs within the hydrological cycle and the influence of variable flux rates between reservoirs.
  • Behavioral: Promote skills in making calculations in water storage and fluxes with increased perception of how these changes are manifest in observable characteristics that might be recorded in various types of time-series data sets.
  • Affective: Encourage reflection about the various surface water and near-surface ground water available for use. Promote scenario building about the role that variations in fluxes have in complex and intertwined water use systems and identification of the least and most critical water resource appropriations. Support consideration and identification/description of alternative patterns of use, and incorporation of technologies and reengineering efforts to reduce and/or isolate water loss (e.g. through contamination or inefficient use).

Context for Use

Unit 1 provides the motivation for undertaking the other exercises, but this context may be provided in lectures and other instructional modes such as a PowerPoint presentation. The content in Unit 1 is appropriate for advanced geology/geoscience courses conducted at the junior and/or senior level in which geodesy data can be introduced in conjunction with traditional presentations of material on the hydrological cycle; this would typically be in a course on hydrology or hydrogeology but could also be part of a course on Earth systems, environmental geology, environmental engineering, or advanced geohazards (as a general introduction to the topic of water). Unit 1 can be adapted to be executed in lecture and lab settings as a series of interactive lecture activities, a lengthier in-class activity, or as part of a laboratory investigation on the use of geodesy to understand water resources. In the Measuring Water Resources module, Unit 1 serves as a preparatory exercise that provides the students with experience with the basic calculation and unit conversions tools and also establishes a set of criteria for recognizing the basic relationships between fluxes, reservoirs, and residence times. Some preparatory lecture time may be required to introduce the concept of the hydrological cycle. To ensure that the students are aware of the various data sets that are available through the use of governmental resources such as the USGS or state agencies, they will be asked to find various sites and extract appropriate time series for analysis. If the entire two-week module will not be utilized, we recommend pairing Unit 1 with Unit 2: Characterizing changes in groundwater storage: traditional versus geodetic techniques to give students an opportunity to attain a firm grasp of all of the components of the hydrological cycle.

Description and Teaching Materials

Unit 1 is designed to fulfill two different but important functions.

  1. Introduce students to the hydrological cycle and help them analyze the interrelations between the various components and the level of variability. The latter will include both space (location) and time (e.g. seasonal, decadal). This will require the students to use quantitative methods to determine the magnitude of key parameters such as the flux between reservoirs and the residence time within any give reservoir.
  2. Have students become aware of the wide range of stakeholders that are linked within a watershed and how these groups may have conflicting visions/priorities. We use the term watershed purposely here to remind everyone that societal concerns are, with respect to water as a resource, inherently limited to the terrestrial realm. The watershed is the primary unit within this context and can vary in size from a small mountain catchment to the entire Mississippi River watershed. There are subtleties when one includes soil moisture and shallow ground water that may or may not have distributions that match the surface water watershed.

Parts A & B

Parts A and B of the assignment introduce students to the hydrological cycle with its various reservoirs and has the students perform a series of calculations to determine residence times and to investigate variations in residence time reflecting global or local flux rates stemming from seasonal variations or long-term trends (e.g. orbital parameters, climate change). The unit may be introduced during a lecture with background material provided and the subsequent work done as homework. Alternatively, time may be spent in a laboratory setting to allow students to get help on the various tasks and calculations. For students not familiar with Excel, you may need to spend some time overviewing basic functions. It can be helpful to plot both data sets on the same graph.

Part C

Part C of the assignment is best done in the classroom or laboratory setting but may be preceded with time outside of class to conduct web/library research on water use/needs of the various groups that need to be included within any decision making on water allocations in systems where water is limited, such as in those associated with snow melt sources that dominate much of the western portions of the United States. Students should be assigned to learn about one of the stakeholder groups (residential, ranching/farming/agricultural, environmental, industrial/power generation). The student groups will then create a PowerPoint presentation that documents the water needs and rationale for this allocation of water resources being appropriate for the group they are representing. A class discussion can then take place, followed by the writing of a synthesis statement addressing the pros and cons of all of the arguments for water allocation for each of the stakeholder groups.

Before working with students on a stakeholder analysis, the instructor should study the example of a stakeholder analyses provided, or view the various web resources listed. An alternative way to get started is to consider a cost–benefit analysis for a simple single decision such as whether a parent should allow a child to impulsively purchase a package of candy in the grocery store checkout line. The cost to the parent is the potential precedent being set for future demands and the negative health effects. The benefit would be the lack of a scene in the checkout line. The cost to the child is the loss of instant gratification and the benefit may be the long-term life lesson of delayed gratification and appreciation of parental decisions.

The first step to conducting a stakeholder analysis is to identify the principle stakeholders. [NOTE: conduct a web search to see what this would yield.] Depending on the regional setting, the list of stakeholders for a water resources consideration might include the following:

  1. Public water supply
  2. Heavy Industrial use (e.g. cooling, component ingredient)
  3. Agricultural use (e.g. irrigation, animal needs)
  4. Environmental needs (e.g. wetlands recharge, stream habitat preservation)
  5. Entertainment (e.g. water theme parks, golf courses)
  6. Recreational use (e.g. white water rafting, fishing)

In some settings, the environmental and recreation uses could be combined depending on the size of the class and the regional setting.

Students may be allowed to elect to represent one of the groups or they can be assigned to group. Alternatively, they could be assigned to the group they are least sympathetic to, based on any previous knowledge or bias they may have. A period of time should be set aside for fact finding with regard to the amount of water required, whether the need is seasonal or continuous, and about various positive and negative impacts that would stem from assignment of the requested proportion of water to other stakeholders. The Stakeholder Analysis table may facilitate the summarization of the salient needs and potential conflicts. Each stakeholder group would prepare graphics to use during a presentation to the other stakeholders such as might take place in a governmental hearing at the local, state, regional, or federal level. At this point a Stakeholder Analysis Matrix should be completed, which will serve to graphically summarize all of the stakeholders in a single location to allow for reflection on the extent of conflicts and the potential for compromise. Alternatively, the summary may be done using the Interest versus Power type of plot, which allows for a graphic display of the positions of each of the stakeholder groups relative to each other. This would then need to be discussed based on the allotted importance of each of the stakeholders claims.

Part D

Part D asks the students to reflect on what they have learned in completing Unit 1. This would include both the hydrological cycle components and their reactions to how their perspectives have changed as a result of knowing about those other groups that are in need of water.

Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • This first unit for this module plays an important part in setting the stage and context for the units that follow. By using the traditional hydrologic cycle as the starting point, the students are reminded of the basic components of the hydrologic cycle and the various reservoirs, fluxes, and residence times that make up the cycle. The focus is on terrestrial reservoirs because these are the ones that have direct impact on water as a societal resource with competing needs for its use. It is important to establish this societal piece early so that in subsequent units the framework for analysis and interpretation of the various data sets is already in place. By specifically selecting watersheds that are dependent on snow melt for much of the annual water budget the module takes advantage of the newsworthy nature of this particular type of watershed.
  • Part B of this unit purposely requires the students to work with data bases that are collected and maintained by federal agencies. This is to impress upon the students the magnitude of the efforts by the federal government on behalf of all those stakeholders impacted by the availability or lack of availability of potable water. It is important that the faculty spend time working with the NRCS SNOTEL and USGS stream gaging websites. While both these websites are reasonably user friendly, there are some steps that may prove problematic to a new user. There is also a vocabulary that needs to be learned so that data selection options can be better understood. A step-by-step series of screen captures showing the navigation to the particular monitoring site and the subsequent selection of the data time series may be created. This may not be necessary for an advanced class, but is beneficial if the module is being used in a lower-level course. For some sites, to get a multiyear time series may require catenation of a series of annual data sets. Another option is to also include sites that the students select that may be close to where they live, a place from a different climate, or a place they find interesting. This site can then be added to the comparisons for the Willow Creek watershed near Harrison, MT. We strongly advocate for the value in having students access these data portals themselves; however, time can be saved if the instructor instead downloads the data and provides a data spreadsheet to the students.
  • Part C will require the students to dig into several of the resources that are provided. The two USGS resources are a good place to start. This part of the module may require extra time outside of class or lab to allow students time to collect information and data appropriate for the stakeholder group they would like to, or have been assigned, to represent. Time within class or lab will then be needed for presentations and discussion. This proves to be much more effective at making the competing demands of the different stakeholders clear and a tangible context within which to carry out the various analytical components of subsequent units. To get student buy-in it can help to emphasize to the students that stakeholder analyses are important in a wide range of jobs from environmental assessments to marketing.
  • The unit requires use of computers. Ideally each student will have their own computer or laptop. At least there should be one computer per work group. If it is not feasible to use computers during the class/lab period, the instructor should take extra steps to make sure that students understand what is required of them to do the exercise outside of class.
  • The Teaching with Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum site provides support for teaching with programs such as Excel. If your students need supporting math practice, The Math You Need site provides an opportunity to brush up on skills such as graphing and unit conversion. Teaching with Google Earth provides a variety of resources for using this powerful program during teaching.


Observation of student activity and conversations, individual questioning, and group discussion are excellent ways to conduct formative assessment as the students complete this exercise.

The Unit 1 Student Exercise is the summative assessment for Unit 1. Instructors can use it to evaluate how well the students have absorbed the fundamental underpinnings of the hydrological cycle and the various concepts and required data manipulations to create either the results of a calculation, the conversation of units or the display of data in table or graphical format. The student responses should be graded using the rubric that is given to the students. Instructors can modify this rubric to assign point values in a manner that is consistent with their course-grading scheme. The various descriptions for performance on each of the numbered tasks have been written in an attempt to make them applicable for the range of responses asked for in each of the numbered tasks. As such there may need to be some degree of flexibility in how the rubric is applied.

Student metacognition is an important part of the learning process. The Unit 1 Student Exercise Part 3 encourages students to reflect on their own learning during this unit and its personal significance. Students' ideas should not be graded, but responses can be scored using the rubric included in the handout to judge the level of engagement of the student.

Unit 1 Example Assessment Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 74kB May21 17)

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This module is part of a growing collection of classroom-tested materials developed by GETSI. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »