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Unit 3: Streams and Water Diversion

Jill S. Schneiderman (Vassar College), Meg E. Stewart (American Museum of Natural History, M.A.T. program), and Joshua Villalobos (El Paso Community College)


Unit 3 communicates the critical need for management of fresh water and ways in which citizens may take part in its conservation and restoration. Students explore the relationships between watersheds, drainage divides and the hydrologic cycle using a case study from the Hawaiian Islands involving surface water diversions from a region inhabited by indigenous people to a region comprised of large-scale agricultural fields.

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Learning Goals

Unit 3 activities support the module goals of being able to articulate the principles of environmental justice as they relate to an example of surface water scarcity. Upon completion of this unit students should be able to:

  • Connect topography, precipitation, and surface water flow and their relationships to watersheds and drainage divides.
  • Investigate relationships between surface water and environmental justice using the digital imagery tools of Google Earth.
  • Relate issues of environmental inequity to changes caused by misuse of surface water processes.

Context for Use

This unit is designed for a 50-minute course but can be modified to fit various course schedules. Students will need to be familiar with concepts of environmental justice and the hydrological cycle prior to this lesson. Students should be familiar with the concept of topographic maps, elevation, and contour lines and intervals prior to the Unit 3 activities. The following activity can be used if this concept has not been covered in the class yet or for students who need more practice: Introduction to Topographic Maps by Mark Bowen.

Description and Teaching Materials

Lesson Plan

Students will develop a conceptual framework to connect human manipulations of water to changes in the hydrologic cycle. By using the case study of management of surface water in Nā Wai 'Ehā (The Four Streams) in Maui, Hawaii, students will see how the delicate balance between people, their water supplies, and the local ecosystem can be disrupted as well as restored.

Pre-class Homework: Reflection on Your Community's Water

Before coming to class, students should provide written reflection (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 39kB Jul16 15) about the following:

  • Sources of surface water in their community
  • Ways in which their local area uses surface water
  • How they personally affect their local hydrologic cycle through their water use
(As a means of assessing their knowledge for this unit, they will revisit these aspects again to see what they have learned from the unit at the end of the lecture and activities.)

Activity 3.1: Visualizing Drainage Basins (15 min)

One of the key concepts that students should comprehend is that of a drainage basin or watershed. Students should understand that these hydrological features are an area of land where surface water from rain, melting snow, or ice converges to a single point at a lower elevation. This lowest elevation point, which is typically the exit point of a basin, is where the waters join another body of water, such as a river, lake, reservoir, estuary, wetland, sea, or ocean.

The first part of the following exercise will help reinforce or provide students with a background for drainage basins. The teacher version of this exercise is provided below. After students have comprehended the concept of identifying drainage basins, have students use local topo maps to identify drainage basins in their region.

The second part of this exercise allows the students to get familiar with Google Earth (GE). If your students are unfamiliar with Google Earth, a walk-through tutorial for students (or instructors) is found in the Pedagogy in Action Google Earth tutorial. After completing the walk-through, or if your students are already comfortable with Google Earth, then they can continue to the second part of the above GE watershed activity.

Activity 3.2: "The Four Streams" region, Hawaii (15 min)

The first part of this activity gives the student a visual context of the physiographic features (topography) of the island of Maui and its relationship to hydrological features being discussed. Students should review and answer questions 1-4 of the assignment. Having the students see how topography controls the hydrological nature of Maui will enforce their understanding of drainage basins. An instructor version of the assignment is also provided.

The second part of this activity introduces a scientific study on the effects of surface water diversion by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This assignment asks students to read a report on the streamflow, recharge, habitats, and water temperatures of the Four Streams in Maui and how they have been altered due to mismanagement.

After the class answers the questions, it is recommended that a short (5 min) video be used to enforce the concept of not only surface water mismanagement but community actions. Several short videos on Nā Wai 'Ehā can be found on YouTube that focus on community activism as well as the negative effects of surface water diversion such as OHA and community efforts return flow to Maui streams by OHAHawaii.

Activity 3.3: Getting the Concepts (15 min)

This activity is a modified version of a Think-Pair-Share activity. If you are unfamiliar with Think-Pair-Share activities, you can learn more from the StartingPoint page on the Think-Pair-Share pedagogy. This activity is highly adaptable to classrooms of all sizes and can be modified as the focus of a longer class or a lab period. It is most effectively implemented in a 30-minute time frame, but it can be extended to accommodate more rigorous student-centered discussions. The activity can be accomplished in a shorter time frame but this is not recommended. Allowing for more complete student-led discussions will maximize the learning opportunities of this activity.

Divide the class into at least two groups (more groups can be made, but each group must have its own concept question). Assign each group a concept question and have the students work toward summarizing their data and answering a list of questions. Each concept question should be tied back into the main topic but constructed in a way that has each group approach the same concept from a different direction.

Concept Question 1: Explain how and why the amount of rainfall, cloud coverage, and vegetation vary over the island.

Concept Question 2: Explain how the diversion of the Four Rivers affects the local ecosystem over time, and what data were used to determine these effects.

A short discussion on the content of the answers for these questions is provided here:

As you move around the class, assess the ideas that each group is creating. When it sounds like each group has thoroughly discussed and summarized its piece of the activity, move on to the next part.

Have students from each group pair up with a student from the group they were not in. Each student will discuss the conclusions from their data set with their new partner and explain how their conclusions relate to the broader topic. Instructors can break students up into any combination of small groups or pairs to suit their classroom environment. However, the activity is most effective when the "sharing" portion is done in the smallest group possible.

If time allows, students may present the conclusions of their group and discuss among the entire class how their ideas relate to the broader topic.

Activity 3.4: End of Lesson (5 min)

Upon finishing this unit, have the students once again provide written reflection about the following:

  • Sources of surface water in their community.
  • Ways in which their local area uses surface water.
  • How they personally affect their local hydrologic cycle through their water use.
  • Have them read their pre-class homework and write a minute paper that addresses the two questions: how has their view of their community's water supply changed as a result of the information examined in this unit; and how have the concepts they encountered in the lesson enhanced their ability to understand their community water supply or complicated their previous understanding. Collect the students' reflections to serve as a formative assessment of comprehension level. This assessment might also provide the opportunity to measure how student understanding of the hydrologic cycle presented in Unit 2 affected student ability to apply that knowledge to a practical situation, in this case, that of the island of Maui.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This unit relies heavily on the use of computers in the classroom. It is suggested that the instructor ensure that his or her classroom has adequate bandwidth for the multiple computers using Wi-Fi at the same time. It is also recommended that an introduction to Google Earth be done in class showing the application's ability and how it can be used in an educational setting. Having students look up their address or famous geological sites helps illustrate how Google Earth can be used. An exploration of Google Earth can be done by having students do a simple assignment to explore their hometown in Google Earth and report back to class on sites they were able to visit in Google Earth but had not seen in person yet.


The student responses on the end-of-lesson assessment can be turned in for credit (individual answers will differ). Assessment is to be based on completion of the paper.

Students' participation in the activities and their ability to answer where their surface water comes from and how community water use affects this provide opportunity for assessment. Students will discuss and write their answers to be handed in. A rubric is provided to enable instructor assessment of achievement of learning goals.


References and Resources

Students interested in additional environmental justice issues in Hawaii may be directed to the following book chapter:

Schneiderman, J.S. and Sharpe, V.A. "Geology and Environmental Justice: An Example from Hawaii" in J. S. Schneiderman'sThe Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet , 2003, Westview Press. 368-385.

State of Hawaii, Commission on Water Resource Management:

USGS information on surface water in Hawaii:

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. 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 »