Expanded description: We will read Charles Fishman’s 2011 book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (New York: Free Press, 403 p.). Multiple used copies are available for $5 or less; look on Amazon, or Bookfinder.com (a compiler of many sources of used books). Content may also be able to get used (and new) copies. Read more about this book at: https://offtheshelf.com/2015/04/the-big-thirst-by-charles-fishman/

About Fishman’s book: Fishman’s book is eminently readable (he’s a journalist). However, the way he has organized the book makes it challenging to discuss. I’ll provide you with questions to keep in mind while reading it, and you can help me out by suggesting things you think we should discuss in class. Because of the 2011 publication date, I encourage you to look online for more up-to-date information about some of his examples (for instance, the level of Lake Mead that supplies Las Vegas with its drinking water).

Additional readings will be distributed by email attachments and links (especially for things like videos). We will lean heavily on resources and articles available on the internet, including some from Carleton’s Science Education Resource Center. Some of these additional readings are listed below. These are tentative, and likely more will be added or substituted. Access to the internet between classes will be essential for accessing suggested readings and other sites. I encourage you to pair up outside of class to look over and discuss the papers and exercises.

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to download Google Earth Pro to your computer(s). It’s free. Instructions on downloading are at: https://www.google.com/earth/versions/

Google Earth is also available in a web version (for Chrome browser and with somewhat less functionality than the downloadable version – but it’s a great time sink, too, especially if you start “rolling the dice” which takes you to random places in the world): https://earth.google.com/web/@0,-8.9876,0a,22251752.77375655d,35y,0h,0t,0r

Most classes will be a mix of lectures, discussion and examination of case studies in small groups. If at all possible, please bring a computer or tablet to class (something with a larger screen than a typical cell phone).

Case studies and/or water plans: In addition to the case studies we will read about and discuss as a group, each person (or pair of people) taking this course will have an opportunity to put together either a) a water plan for a city that is experiencing water shortages/drought, water availability concerns and/or dealing with water quality issues or b) a case study of a particular problem in water in a particular place (e.g. How might potential copper/nickel/platinum group mining in northern Minnesota affect water supplies and the BWCA?) I will give you additional information during the first two classes, along with a handout or two.

Before first class: if possible, read Fishman, (ch. 1 ch 2) and take a self-test on your place in the world of water.

Week 1 Where is water? Who uses water? Why?

In class: water cycle; (human) water infrastructure; sense of place; our use of water

Introduction to the case study/water plans project

Before class week 2: Start keeping a water diary (recording your own water use).

Indirect water use: Choose at least one item that you use or consume every day, and research the indirect water usage that goes into producing it. There are many useful resources on the internet to help you do this, for example check out the Product Gallery at Waterfootprint.org.

Read Fishman, ch. 6

David Sedlak 2009 Nobel lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OknKTTn0-64 “Short-Circuiting the Hydrologic Cycle to Meet Urban Water Needs” at Nobel Conference 45.

Optional: Toowoomba since 2009 (for instance their WaterVision 2050 plan)

Week 2 Water on earth’s surface (watersheds and stream flow); What happened in Toowoomba? (Fishman, ch 6)

In class: Discussion of Toowoomba case study and remedies for freshwater shortages; What is a watershed? Locating and using stream flow records; what factors affect river flow – and are affected by it.

Before class week 3: reading TBD on aquifers and aquifer examples. Minnesota Department of Agriculture videos on aquifers in SE MN.

Pick one of the following aquifers to study further:



Central Valley

Another TBD

Week 3 Water below the surface: groundwater and ground water/surface water interactions

In class: where Northfield gets its water; geology and groundwater of SE MN; karst

Contrast the Northfield, Ogallala, Central Valley, and Edwards aquifer

Before class Week 4: Read Fishman ch. 3. 4; a little general reading on droughts and floods

Working with the US Drought Monitor

Read up and study one or two floods:

Rapid City 1972;

Big Thompson River 1976,

Mississippi River (multiple)

Other floods TBD

Annual Disaster report (2021 Disasters in Numbers): linked from https://www.cred.be/publications

Week 4: Water supply: too little and too much (droughts and floods); how big? How often? (magnitude and frequency); climate change

In class: determining magnitude and frequency of floods and droughts; working with FEMA maps; considering flood risk and insurance

Before class Week 5:

General reading on Environmental Justice, emerging contaminants, drinking water quality, bottled water

Fishman article on bottled water (or the appropriate section of Fishman’s book)

Northfield water quality report

Pick one of the following cases to study:

Woburn, MA (and find other examples of drinking water supplies compromised by industrial activity and dumping)

Jackson, MS (and find other examples of drinking water supplies compromised by flooding, storm surges, etc.)

Flint, MI (and find other examples of drinking water supplies compromised by a change in the source of the drinking water)

Week 5: Who is responsible for problem in water quality? Who suffers?

In class: discuss Flint, Jackson, Woburn examples; emerging contaminants; making drinking water safe; Drinking water management zoning

Before class week 6: Read Fishman, ch. 7, 8.

Read about one example of water use in an ancient society: Near East, Maya, Anasazi (maybe one more)

Week 6: Water in the ancient world

In class: Discuss the examples, paying particular attention to the different ways of framing each of these cases; environmental determinism?

Before class week 7: read Fishman, ch. 5, 9, 10: paying for water

Review sources on who uses how much water, how water is allocated in different areas and who pays what.

Read sources suggested by the people who will present during class.

Week 7: Who uses water? Who pays for water? Climate change and future water needs and supplies.

In class: Discuss of the cost and supply of water; presentation of some case studies/water plans.

Before class Week 8: Read sources suggested by the people who will present during class.

Week 8 in class: Presentation of remaining case studies/water plans; wrap up.