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Water in the Western United States

University of Colorado Boulder via Coursera

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Why is water at the heart of so much conflict in the American West? How have major cities and extensive agricultural systems been able to thrive despite most of the region being either a desert or semi-desert environment? How will a warming climate affect the availability and use of water in a region populated by tens of millions of people? 

We begin our journey with an overview of the geography of the Interior West and its extreme contrasts, from snow-capped high mountain peaks to bone-dry deserts. We will then look at how humans have learned to adapt to the peculiarities of life in such a dry place as we examine the history of water development in the region and the main legal, political, and cultural issues at stake. We’ll explore the primary role of snow as a water source as we discuss the physical science of water in the west—where it comes from, how it gets used, and how a warming climate could affect its availability. 

We’ll use the Colorado River, often referred to as the most controlled and most litigated river in the world, as an in-depth case study. A 1922 agreement over sharing the water among seven states set the stage for conflict among states, tribes, the federal government, and others. We’ll see how scientific research into the climatic variability of the River is informing these conflicts and other policy questions, and who is tackling the big issue of what to do if a mega-drought—or a warming climate—were to lead to a reduction in supply in this critical lifeline for much of the American Southwest. Finally, we’ll explore some critical issues in depth and give you the chance to compare management of water supplies in your area—wherever you are located in the world—to that of the arid West.

For those living in the region, we hope to make this a fascinating look at how water gets to your tap; for those from elsewhere in the world we believe the Interior West makes for a fascinating case study in management of a scarce resource.


MODULE 0. Course Introduction and Course Basics  
Lecture 1: How the Class Works
Lecture 2: Why Study Water in the Western US?
Lecture 3: Overview of the Water Cycle
Lecture 4: Major Physical Geography and Social Characteristics of River Basins in the Western US

MODULE 1. History, Politics, and Culture of Water Development in the Western US

Lecture 1: History of Water Development in the West
Lecture 2: Native American Tribes and Water
Lecture 3: Water Storage and Delivery Infrastructure
Lecture 4: The Prior Appropriation System
Lecture 5: Interstate Water Conflicts and Agreements
Lecture 6: Environmental Flows; Water and the Endangered Species Act

MODULE 2. Hydrology, Water Demand, and Climate in the Western US

Lecture 1: Climate in the Western US and Its Impact on Water Resources
Lecture 2: Water Quality, Aquatic Habitat, and Drinking Water
Lecture 3: Groundwater Resources
Lecture 4: Watershed Impacts
Lecture 5: River and Flash Flooding
Lecture 6: Water Demand for Agriculture
Lecture 7: Water Demand for Urban Areas
Lecture 8: Impacts of Climate Change in the Interior West

MODULE 3. Case Study: The Colorado River Basin
Lecture 1: Geographic and Physical Overview of the Colorado River Basin
Lecture 2: History of Development of the Colorado River Basin: The Era of Big Dams
Lecture 3: Climate and the Colorado River Basin: Past, Present, and Future
Lecture 4: The Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study
Lecture 5: Human Control vs. Natural Variability: The Grand Canyon Experimental Flows Program

MODULE 4. Controversial Water Issues in Depth and Course Conclusion
Lecture 1: Science, Management, and Reality: The Story of the California Bay Delta
Lecture 2: Doing More With Less: Water Conservation and New Supplies in Las Vegas
Lecture 3: A Growing Controversy: Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Supplies
Lecture 4: Understanding Water Quality Impacts: Boulder Creek Case Study
Lecture 5: The Water-Energy Nexus
Lecture 6: What Does the Future Hold? Climate Change, Growing Populations, and Solutions for the Future
Lecture 7: Course Conclusion

Taught by

Anne Gold and Eric Gordon


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