Sustainable Watersheds and Communities

Cailin Huyck Orr, School of the Environment, Washington State University- Pullman


Water and land use are explicitly linked through a complex set of challenges surrounding water quantity and quality. In the world today, water scarcities due to economic growth, ecosystem demands, and climate change require integrative approaches to looking at water use and management. This class takes a case study approach to learning about human and ecological needs for water and sustainable water management.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only - 75 min twice a week

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This course is a 200-level Environmental science course offered following a very large and popular Environmental Science 101 course as a bridge to upper level courses. The course builds on ideas of sustainability introduced in 101 and provide concrete examples for students through the exploration of water sustainability problems in specific watersheds. Students come from a variety of backgrounds, including returning students and veterans, and many have not yet chosen majors. Almost all are from Washington State and the locations used in the first two cases are watersheds in Washington familiar to them. The course is designed to provide environmental literacy for students who will become citizen scientists as well as to be a building block for future Environmental Science majors.

Course Content:

The course uses a series of place-based cases to introduce students to basic concepts in geology, hydrology and aquatic ecology. We then look at human uses for water in these locations and the history and context for problems related to water quality, quantity and sustainability. A large portion of the time (about half of each class) is devoted to discussion in various forms, focused on the readings and supplemented by online discussions in Angel (like Moodle or Blackboard) which sometimes include responses by authors of material we have read. Students write a series of four short essays, conduct group projects on water sustainability problems of their choosing, and design a poster and an oral presentation suggesting an approach to solving the problem they selected.

Course Goals:

1. Improved understanding of how social, economic and environmental issues contribute to sustainability.
2. For students to recognize why issues of sustainability are relevant to their lives, even if they don't see themselves as environmentalists.
3. For students to be able to write clear, well organized, short essays and to practice public speaking.
4. To introduce students to sources of information beyond textbooks including news media, primary literature and government documents.

Course Features:

In this course we look at several watersheds with increasing distance from our campus in Pullman, Washington to first understand where water comes from, then how it is used by people and ecosystems, and finally what conflicts arise from mismatches between water quality, quantity, timing, human demand, and ecosystem needs. This case approach helps students understand how the landscape influences water availability, without needing to first learn everything about the relevant fields. We look at geology, hydrology and climate in specific watersheds before addressing the human and ecosystem aspects of the broader, integrated system. This gives students the context to understand what limits water availability and how a water budget constrains possible solutions to sustainability problems.

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed to encourage participation and let students discuss, argue, and think critically about real problems they can identify with and that interest them. The first few weeks of lectures give a primer on water science as a basis for understanding the problems the cases represent. Walking through the cases shows students how complicated environmental problem-solving can be in a way that they internalize. These ideas are then transferable to other situations, as they practice in the group projects. Emphasis is put on synthesis of information.


Assessment is done to evaluate student understanding of course content, evaluate their communication skills, and to give them an opportunity to practice being evaluators. To help ensure interesting classroom discussions, frequent, unannounced, quizzes are given on reading material. Students understanding of the concept of sustainability and is assessed by a pair of writing assignments given at the beginning and end of the course. On the first day of class students are asked to write about the definition of sustainability and their responses are collected and saved. In the final writing assignment, the definitions from day one are returned to them and they are asked to discuss how their ideas about sustainability have changed, if they have, and how this change is significant. Writing ability is assessed as individual improvement over the four assignments and emphasis is put on both form and content. Students do peer review exercises on the second writing assignment and are then given the opportunity to do revisions. To ensure group project work is divided equitably, students are asked to confidentially assess the participation of their group members as well as their own participation in the group project. They are told at the beginning of the projects they will be evaluated this way. The final products, posters and presentations, are reviewed by all the students in the class as well as the instructor and groups are given constructive feedback.


References and Notes:

No textbook is used

We read several chapters of Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter.

Other readings come from a variety of sources including peer reviewed journal articles, Northwest Public Radio podcasts, the New York Times, National Geographic and the Environmental Protection Agency websites. These change somewhat from one semester to the next.

More information is listed on the syllabus.