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Unit 6: Groundwater Availability and Resources

Adriana Perez (University of Texas El Paso) and Joshua Villalobos (El Paso Community College)

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


In this unit, students analyze and interpret groundwater data. They make predictions about what will happen to groundwater levels as human activities change, and discuss possible solutions to minimize groundwater depletion.

Science and Engineering Practices

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Construct an explanation that includes qualitative or quantitative relationships between variables that predict(s) and/or describe(s) phenomena. MS-P6.1:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships. MS-P4.2:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Construct, analyze, and/or interpret graphical displays of data and/or large data sets to identify linear and nonlinear relationships. MS-P4.1:

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking: Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems involving quantities with derived or compound units (such as mg/mL, kg/m3, acre-feet, etc.). HS-P5.5:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Patterns: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data. MS-C1.4:

Patterns: Patterns in rates of change and other numerical relationships can provide information about natural and human designed systems MS-C1.2:

Patterns: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships. MS-C1.3:

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. MS-C2.2:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Human Impacts on Earth Systems: Human activities have significantly altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging or destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of other species. But changes to Earth’s environments can have different impacts (negative and positive) for different living things. MS-ESS3.C1:

Biodiversity and Humans: Changes in biodiversity can influence humans’ resources, such as food, energy, and medicines, as well as ecosystem services that humans rely on—for example, water purification and recycling. MS-LS4.D1:

Human Impacts on Earth Systems: The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources. HS-ESS3.C1:

Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience: Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species. HS-LS2.C2:

Biodiversity and Humans: Humans depend on the living world for the resources and other benefits provided by biodiversity. But human activity is also having adverse impacts on biodiversity through overpopulation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Thus sustaining biodiversity so that ecosystem functioning and productivity are maintained is essential to supporting and enhancing life on Earth. Sustaining biodiversity also aids humanity by preserving landscapes of recreational or inspirational value. HS-LS4.D1:

Performance Expectations

Earth and Human Activity: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. HS-ESS3-1:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Jul 12, 2015


Students will utilize the desert Southwest region of the United States and the Ogallala Aquifer in a case study to evaluate issues regarding groundwater and its scarcity. Groundwater is often seen as a limitless resource in the Southwest since there is little regulation controlling the amount that is withdrawn (Rule of Capture). This mentality has led to overuse and to the dwindling supply of groundwater in many parts of the Ogallala Aquifer. This module will help students connect groundwater's role in the hydrological cycle to issues of inequity that can occur when groundwater is not properly regulated.

Learning Goals

Unit 6 activities support the module goals of being able to articulate the principles of environmental justice as they relate to examples of water scarcity and contamination using the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States as a case study. This unit also discusses potential solutions to inequitable access to clean water in the Ogallala. The specific learning objectives for this unit are as follows:

  • Students will be able to discuss the relationship between the hydrological cycle and availability of groundwater resources.
  • Students will be able to predict if a region's groundwater availability is of concern.
  • Students will be able to explain how groundwater resources can be depleted.
  • Students will be able to obtain data to assess changes in groundwater levels.

Context for Use

This unit may be used for one day of instruction in an introductory geology, environmental studies, or global change class. It can be customized to meet different classroom formats and times. The unit communicates the critical need for management of fresh water and ways in which the students may take part in its conservation. It is designed for a 50-minute course but can be modified to fit various schedules. Students should have been introduced to the concepts of environmental justice and the hydrological cycle prior to this lesson.

Description and Teaching Materials

Unit 6 Pre-class Homework: Using USGS Data to Predict Groundwater Depletion

USGS Groundwater Activity (Microsoft Word 7.4MB Jun28 15) ( or in PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 1.1MB Mar2 15)). This activity walks students through the USGS groundwater data site and asks them to investigate groundwater depletion issues in a region of Texas. The activity addresses the current state of depleted groundwater in northwest Texas. Over the past decade, persistent droughts in northwest Texas have led farmers to pump more irrigation water from the one of the largest underground water reserves, the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer irrigates almost 30 percent of US croplands. This over-pumping has caused groundwater levels in the Ogallala to drop over 8 feet, with some counties in Texas seeing a drop of more than 15 feet in groundwater levels. Demands for agricultural products and sparse groundwater replenishment (in the form of rain) have led to a potential crisis in northwest Texas. More information regarding conservation efforts and water usage in the Ogallala Aquifer can be found by exploring the High Plains Water Districts' website.

This activity will introduce students to the USGS website for groundwater data and help them to prepare for the think-pair-share activity in the subsequent class session. An instructor's version can be downloaded here:

Activity 6.1: Think-Pair-Share: Getting the Concepts (10 min)

Using pre-class activity results, students discuss the following concepts as an in-class, think-pair-share activity learn more about the think-pair-share method). Students may write their answers on index cards or on the board for further discussion as a class. This may be used as an assessment tool. Students should discuss the following questions in groups. To ensure students are focusing on the correct concepts for the think-pair-share activity, a summary of the key concepts for each question is provided in the

Activity 6.1 Concepts Key

This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you are a teacher or faculty member and would like access to this file please enter your email address to be verified as belonging to an educator.

. These discussion questions are also found in the PowerPoint provided for activity 6.2.

  • What has happened to groundwater levels in the area investigated as time has progressed? What were the reasons for any changes?
  • What sources other than agriculture could be contributing to the decline in groundwater? How do these sources use groundwater?

Activity 6.2: Groundwater Depletion (15 min)

PowerPoint presentation and integrated discussion on groundwater availability and resources.

Activity 6.3: Water Conservation Discussion (20 min)

The water conservation activity is embedded in the PowerPoint file from activity 6.2. Students will work in pairs with the each of the students reading a separate article. One student will read the Ogallala Initiative (Acrobat (PDF) 305kB Feb20 15), a fact sheet created by NRCS, designed to help landowners reduce water use. The second student will read the Ogallala Initiative Progress Report 2013 (Acrobat (PDF) 3.2MB Feb20 15). This document shows the status of the initiative, which has reduced water withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer by 489 billion gallons over 4 years. The Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI) accounted for about 29 percent of this savings. Discussion questions are included in the PowerPoint.

Activity 6.4: Reflection (5 min)

For students to reflect on what they have learned in Unit 6, ask students to write on an index card one thing that they feel they have learned in this unit and one thing that still seems confusing, unclear, or incomplete. Collect the cards and use them to determine what aspects of the topic might need to be revisited in another class.

Teaching Notes and Tips

As a result of completing this unit, students should be able to comprehend the use, significance, and details of groundwater resources and their own connection to these resources via their water footprint—even if they do not live in the region of the Ogallala Aquifer. Instructors may expand upon the topics discussed in this unit to help students comprehend additional groundwater issues in other parts of the United States. Some topics that can be discussed and integrated into additional assignments are:

  • A further investigation of different regions of the Ogallala Aquifer (regions of increased groundwater level slide 9 map B) using the USGS website.
  • Calculation of the water footprint of the food in a grocery bill, items on a restaurant receipt, or in their lunch. They can compare and combine these results with the water footprint data they collected in Unit 2 in which they calculated their daily water usage.
  • Students can explore other conservation methods to save groundwater and give specific locations or communities that are implementing these techniques.


Use the provided rubric Assessment Rubric Unit 6 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Jun28 15) (or the PDF version (Acrobat (PDF) 56kB Jun28 15)) on the following take-home or in-class assessment questions to determine the level of comprehension:
  • Describe the significance of the Ogallala Aquifer to US agriculture and explain why agricultural production is concentrated in this region of the United States.
  • How might the groundwater of the Ogallala Aquifer be connected to the hydrological cycle and how is this relationship affected by overuse of the groundwater?
  • What potential groups in society may be affected by overuse of the groundwater and why?
  • You have been asked by a farmer in Amarillo, Texas, to explore the reasons why some of his wells are no longer producing water. Utilizing data from the USGS website, give a reason for the declining groundwater levels in the region and explain what steps could be taken to minimize the problem in the future.

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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 »