Hydrotopia: Water Resources Management in the West

Steve Burian
University of Utah


This is an interdisciplinary water management course. It is co-taught by an engineering instructor and an instructor from humanities. Students experience class sessions involving traditional lectures, guest speakers, position paper debates, and design charettes. Students are required to complete numerous in-class exercises, homework, three position papers, and a team project. Teams for in-class and homework assignments and project are selected by the instructor to include multiple disciplines.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

The is a upper level undergraduate/graduate course. It is an elective open to all majors. Typically 50% of the students are from engineering 25% are from sciences, geosciences or environmental sciences, and 25% are from humanities, planning, or law. The course is unique and popular and reaches maximum enrollment when offered.

Course Content:

This course is built on interdisciplinary case study analyses of historical and emerging water issues and water engineering projects in the western United States. Case studies cover a range of topics such as the water cycle, water conservation, water supply, water-energy nexus, climate change, water and ecology, and water and society as related to specific water problems or water engineering projects in the western United States. Within the context of these case studies students learn the fundamental and advanced concepts related to water resources planning and management, water law, water resources engineering, water management modeling, and engineering and environmental ethics.

Course Goals:

The goal of this course is to develop the next generation of professionals responsible for leading the planning, designing, managing, and operating water resources systems and facilitating the interaction of those systems with society in the west. After completing the course, students will be able to:
  1. Explain benefits and impacts of water engineering projects to non-technical people
  2. Navigate water rights administration process
  3. Describe water planning, management, administration, and infrastructure elements
  4. Analyze water management decisions using computer modeling tools
  5. Engage in dialogue leading to conflict resolution related to water resources
  6. Assess implications of water management solutions in an economic, environmental, and societal context and judge tradeoffs among the three
  7. Articulate and recommend a vision for sustainable water systems and effectively communicate with others to plan and design multi-objective water resources solutions

Course Features:

The final team projects are the key feature of the course. Student's are assigned their teams so they may be multi-disciplinary, but given the freedom to choose their topic and have it approved by the instructors. The projects are designed to bridge the majors and can be technical or non-technical. The project presentations are open to the public and all invited speakers from the semester plus numerous other invited guests are invited.

Course Philosophy:

The course philisophy is built on the themes of the American West and water. The American West can be understood best by seeing aridity as its defining physical feature; this is because one can most fruitfully describe the culture of the west -- its past, its present, and its future -- as an hydraulic society. The genesis of this society was a utopian vision of the transformation of the west into a new Eden, a transformation made possible through technology. Presently the inhabitants of the West are being forced to re-examine – re-consummate -- their relationship, both to the water and to the technology used to control it. Through an examination of the cultural context in which the west was originally settled and how it has changed to bring us where we are today, this course seeks to help students understand where this new relationship might be headed.


Student assessment is based on in-class exercises, homework, three position papers, and a team project. In addition, participation in discussions is considered.


Hydrotopia Course Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 25kB Feb12 13)

References and Notes:

Required Reading List:
  1. Barbanell, Taking Scarcity Seriously; Barringer, Lake Mead Drying Up; Piechota, Response to Lake Mead Drying Up
  2. Desert Wars Video; Arnold, Moral Economy of Water in the West
  3. Selected Vision Statements from 2009; Water is for Fightin' Video
  4. Barbanell, Water Rights Doctrines; Debuys, Problem of Western Water
  5. Water Rights in Utah; Fort, Water Policy of the West; Henetz, Whose Water Is It
  6. Green River Nuclear Power Plant Resources for Position Paper #1
  7. Grigg, Chapter 1 – Management in the Water Industry; Grigg, Chapter 24 – Water Management in the Western United States, Draper, Section 5 – Water Allocation Strategies
  8. AWWA 50, Chapter 1 - Introduction to Water Resources Planning; Grigg, Chapter 4 – Planning and Decision-Making Processes; Simms, Making the Rain; Steinberg, Morton Salt Disaster; Viessman, Utah Water Planning Overview
  9. Grigg, Chapter 3 - Water Infrastructure and Systems; Geronis, Dam Building May Not Be Over
  10. MODSIM Users Manual (Skim) and MODSIM Tutorial 1 (Poudre)
  11. Chatham River Case Study, Warshall, Watershed Governance: Checklists to Encourage Respect for Waterflows and People; Grigg, Denver Two Forks Case Study
  12. Grigg, Chapter 8 – Water Industry Structure; Grigg; Cech, Chapter 10 – Local, Regional, State, and Multistate Water Management Agencies
  13. Larsen and Burian, Energy Requirements for Water Use in Utah; Webber, Catch 22 – Water vs. Energy – in Scientific American, pages 34-41
  14. Totty, High-Tech Cures for Water Shortages; Royte, Tall Drink of Sewage
  15. Lake Powell Pipeline Resources for Position Paper #2
  16. Liquid Assets video; Boyett, 65 Percent Rate Increase; Salt Lake Trib Water Tax article; Bui, Phoenix Water Rate Hike; Kosik, U.S. Water Infrastructure in Trouble
  17. Adler, Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems
  18. Ostler, Upper Colorado River Basin Perspectives on the Drought
  19. IPCC, Chapter 3 - Water Resources; Dracup, Water Sustainability: The Potential Impact of Climate Change; Hooten, Global Warming and Climate Change: Is Utah's Water Resources at Risk?; Fahys, Utah Outlook: Drier summers, wetter winters
  20. Ellin, Canalscape: Practising Integral Urbanism in Metropolitan Phoenix
  21. Funk, Suggestions for Urban Water Conservation
  22. McCool, Warning: Water Policy Faces an Age of Limits
  23. Cech, Chapter 15 – Emerging Water Issues; Black, Water Insecurity
  24. Page, China Pushes Water Plan; Foster, China Redirects Water; Watts, Thirst of China Cities
  25. Position Paper #3 Klamath Dam Removal Resources