Hydrotopia: Toward a Hydraulic Society in the American West

Ed Barbanell, Associate Dean and a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah
co-taught with Steve Burian, Civil Engineering, University of Utah


Interdisciplinary case study analysis of historical and emerging water issues in the western United States. Students learn the fundamental concepts and major issues related to water resources planning and management, water law, water resources engineering, water management modeling, and engineering and environmental ethics.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This course is intended for upper-level undergraduate and terminal masters or professional masters students from any number of fields in humanities, social sciences, engineering and planning. The goals of this course are twofold: (1) to cultivate in the next generation of engineering professionals – those responsible for planning, designing, managing, and operating water resources systems – a broader sensibility about the cultural climate in which they will operate, and (2) to develop in humanists, social scientists and others who will be responsible for shaping and articulating that cultural climate a more grounded understanding of the hydraulic technologies available to them.

Course Content:

We expose students to the entire range of physical, historical, conceptual, cultural, legal and technical aspects of water in the western United States. We do this by (a) having frequent guest lecturers from both inside and outside of academica, and through in-depth case study analysis of historical and recent water development projects.

Course Goals:

At the conclusion of this course, students should be able to:

1. Explain water projects to non-technical people
2. Navigate water rights administration process
3. Describe multidisciplinary elements of water projects
4. Analyze water management decisions using modeling tools
5. Assess implications of technical and non-technical
water project solutions and decisions in a societal
6. Effectively communicate with others to develop, judge,
and recommend multi-objective solutions to water
resources challenges

Course Features:

We augment our lectures with guest speakers, who are representatives from a wide range of academic, political and professional pursuits related to water policy and/or water development in the region. Students individually must evaluate several recent projects -- or proposals for projects -- for Western water development by writing position papers. For the main final project, students work in interdisciplinary teams to do an in-depth analysis of some aspect of water development/water policy in the west.

Course Philosophy:

Aridity is the defining physical feature of the American West, and the socio‐political ecology of the West can only be understood in relationship to this feature. From the outset, inhabitation of the West was motivated by a utopian vision that focused on transforming the region into a new Eden: a hydraulic society made possible through engineering. Today, however, the inhabitants of the West are being forced to re‐examine and re‐consummate their relationship to both the water resources available to them and the technologies that can be used to manipulate those resources. By investigating the cultural context in which the West was originally settled and how that context has changed to bring us where we are today, we will try to understand where this new relationship might be taking us.


Students are evaluated through four (4) position papers over the course of the semester. In each, they are randomly assigned to be either for or against a particular water development project. Additionally, we survey students at the beginning and at the end of the course vis-a-vis the stated course objectives.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 24kB May29 12)

Teaching Materials:

Final Group Project Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB May29 12)

References and Notes: