Water and Society

Adelle Monteblanco, University of Colorado at Boulder
University of Colorado at Boulder


"Water and Society" introduces students to sociological considerations of water, particularly access, distribution and risk management. The course reviews the central role of water in human society, with themes of inequality, conflict, health, and climate disruption. Students complete weekly readings, take three exams, and participate in a variety of case studies that address topics such as oil spills and floodplain management. Their final project is to create a public service ad (PSA) with the objective of changing student behavior.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

"Water and Society" is a newly developed course for the sociology department at CU Boulder to fulfill the "Special Topics" curriculum. It is designed as an introductory course with no prerequisites. Although intended to be interdisciplinary, the content and activities are most appropriate for courses that examine water consumption and distribution from a social science lens. Lastly, the course is designed to be easily applicable to lower-division undergraduates in a myriad of higher education institutions.

Course Content:

I. Introduction to Water
Subtopics: overview of socio-political concerns of water; individual and collective consumption practices; commodification

II. Water Inequality
Subtopics: access and distribution as related to socioeconomic status, power, and stratification; environmental justice

III. Energy and Food
Subtopics: fossil fuels, fracking, farming
Case study: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

IV. Risk and Resilience
Subtopics: climate disruption, floods, sea level rise, vulnerability
Case study: "Flood Risk in Boulder." This case introduces students to likely hazard of flooding in their community, with special attention to the vulnerability of the student population. It provides students the opportunity to explore the risk and resilience associated with their college town.
Case study: "Moving to Higher Ground: Ecosystems, Economics, and Equity in the Floodplain." Link: http://www.sesync.org/ecosystems-economics-and-equity-in-the- floodplain-case-study-5

V. Our Social Institutions
Subtopics: economy and industry, military, religion, the university; current management strategies

VI. Social Action and Social Change
Subtopics: Individual vs. collective action; the role of denial and apocalyptic hysteria;solutions

Course Goals:

On the topic of water.
Students will be able to:
  • Describe how water has environmental, sociological and economic components that shape their everyday activities.
  • Describe the social inequalities associated with water consumption and distribution.
  • Assess water hazards (sea level rise and flooding) that may negatively impact a community.
  • Identify relevant stakeholders associated with contemporary water challenges.
On the focus of interdisciplinary research.
Students will be able to:
  • Synthesize diverse types and sources of data.
  • Critique and synthesize interdisciplinary research.
  • Apply interdisciplinary research to best solve contemporary environmental and social problems.
On skill-development.
  • Students will be offered multiple opportunities to practice the collaboration and creative thinking skills necessary to combat social and environmental challenges.

Course Features:

I take a practical approach to improve the adaptability and resilience of students. This is informed by sociological basics and my observation of teaching undergraduate students, particularly during the 2013 Boulder floods. My concern is that students are simply unaware of their new locale, including the history of drought and flood in Colorado. This is evident in the fact that many do not recognize the importance of water conservation in a semi-arid environment, and many students decided to "play" in the Boulder flood waters. This limited earth literacy intersects with their vulnerable social locations, due to their transient nature as well their reliance on guardians and the university. For example, students reflected post-flood that they were ill-prepared to be without electricity and were frightened for their safety.

Based on these concerns, the capstone project for this course is to creatively and collaboratively produce a short PSA (video) in small groups. The PSAs will need to address behavior changes that empower their peers to A) reduce water consumption OR B) improve flood preparedness efforts. The intended audience for the PSAs will be the university's student population. Local and campus-wide sustainability and emergency leaders will be invited to screen the PSAs.

Course Philosophy:

The premise of this course is that environmental issues are social issues. More specifically, our practices, attitudes, and institutions shape the ways in which we interact with the environment, including water. This survey course introduces and integrates sociological basics such as socioeconomic status, environmental justice, globalization, commodification and population dynamics with the issue of water consumption and distribution. In order to best explore the socio-environmental issue of water, I will rely on an interdisciplinary approach. This will include readings and guest discussion facilitators (academics and practitioners) with diverse training histories.

This course is designed to fulfill a variety of needs within my department and university. First, it is intended to satisfy the call for "Special Topics" courses within the sociology department. Second, it aims to carry out the mission of the Peak to Peak (P2P) Initiative (http://www.colorado.edu/academicaffairs/p2p.html). P2P is a project at CU Boulder that seeks to integrate sustainability into the larger learning environment of the university.

Lastly, "water and society" is intended to benefit students not only in academic content and skill-building but also in their personal lives. The U.S. will continue to suffer from pollution, natural disasters, and resource conflict. Therefore the course is intended to help students face contemporary challenges.


Assessment occurs in four ways. The lecture and reading material portion of the course is assessed through 3 exams, which include a variety of question types. Second, students will be required to submit written homework to prepare for each guest discussion facilitator. Third, assessment will occur throughout the use of multiple case studies. Last, the capstone PSA will be assessed through each groups' videos, including self-and peer-review.


References and Notes:

Example "introductory" resources: Postel, Sandra. 2010. "Water adapting to a new normal." The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises, Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media.

Watermark documentary. Link to Information: http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/site_contents/Films/Watermark_Film.html

Example "inequality" resource: Water First: Reaching the Millennium Development Goals documentary. Link to information: http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/wfirst.html

Example "Colorado" reading: Averyt, Kristen et al. Colorado Climate Preparedness Project: Final Report, particularly the "Water Sector in Colorado" chapter. Link: http://wwa.colorado.edu/publications/reports/WWA_ColoClimatePreparednessProject_Report_2011.pdf

Example "social action" reading: Maniates, Michael F. 2001. "Individualization: Plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world?." Global Environmental Politics 1(3):31-52.

Example "flood" reading: Youngman, Nicole. 2009. "Understanding Disaster Vulnerability: Floods and Hurricanes." Pp.176-190 in Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology, edited by K. A. Gould and T. L. Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Example "oil spill" reading: Northwest Earth Institute. Just Below the Surface: Perspectives on the Gulf Coast Oil Spill. PDF freely available: http://www.nwei.org/product/just-below-the-surface-pdf/

Example "vulnerability" readings: Lovekamp, William E., and Sara K. McMahon. 2011. "I Have a Snickers Bar in the Trunk of My Car: Student Narratives of Disaster Risk, Fear, Preparedness, and Reflections on Union University." International Journal of Mass Emergencies & Disasters 29(2):132-148.

Lovekamp, William E., and Michelle L. Tate. 2008. "College student disaster risk, fear and preparedness." International Journal Mass Emergencies and Disasters 26:70-90.