Water in the Western United States

This course combines an overview of the science behind water and climate in the Western United States with a survey of the major legal, political, and cultural issues focused on this precious resource.

About The Course

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is this class offered as Signature Track?

Yes, it is!

What resources will I need for this class?

For this course, all you need is an internet connection and the time to view the videos, complete the assignments, and reflect on water management in the Western US and elsewhere. There are no required texts, although we will suggest supplementary readings throughout the course.

I’m not from the Western US. Why should I take this course?

Water managers and planners from around the world have studied the Western US, and the Colorado River Basin in particular, because of the physical and legal complexities of the region. Learning more about water management in the western US can inform water management in other regions and teach more about how societies have worked to managed a scarce but shared resource.

I am an educator and would like to receive professional development credit for this course?

Yes, we are developing a course with University of Colorado's Continuing Education program through to which you can submit the assignments from this course along with a classroom-specific assignment to receive teacher professional development credit.

Recommended Background

There are no prerequisites for this course, and no prior knowledge is assumed.