Central to all ecosystems, water is essential to life as we know it. It shapes our planet on every level, from the chemical properties of the H2O molecule to its central role in global climate. Poised to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th, water is also a critical environmental issue. Where do we find it? Is it safe to consume? Who has access to it? How can we manage this precious resource to provide an adequate supply to all the species that depend upon it? This course will focus on why water is such a critical resource, the effect of human consumption on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the social, economic, and environmental implications of water management.
The course begins with an overview of the role of water as a key component of planetary systems, the many ways humans use water and the cumulative effects of human activity on Earth’s freshwater supply. It describes the link between water and biodiversity and the services that freshwater ecosystems provide, with a particular focus on wetlands. It considers how this finite resource is distributed across the planet, moves on to the effect of water quality on human health and concludes with an overview of the key challenges that affect water management on a global scale.
During each week of the course, case studies provide learners with in-depth, real-world and diverse exposure to these issues. They also provide opportunities for rich discussion. The studies include the history and hydrology of the Colorado River and the tradeoffs of water management; the livelihoods that revolve around the Mekong River and its fertile delta; the clean-up of wastewater through constructed wetlands in Augusta, Georgia; water supply and management in the New York City watershed; and the complexity of sharing water resources among the eight countries that share southern Africa’s Zambezi River Basin.
Student Learning Outcomes
Please refer to the Weekly Schedule below for a detailed outline of the course.
This is a six-week online graduate course with an additional week for assignment completion. The course is asynchronous and does not have specific meeting times. Assignments and discussions change on a weekly basis. Students are expected to complete work within the specific week it is assigned.
For the current schedule of offerings, please visit www.amnh.org/learn/calendar
This graduate course is co-taught by an experienced educator along with a research scientist.
For current instructor information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This course requires the following textbook:
Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet
By Daniel B. Botkin, Edward A. Keller
Hardcover: 752 pages; Dimensions (in inches): 11 x 8.6 x 1.3
Publisher: Wiley, 7th edition, 2009
Technical support is available by calling (800) 649-6715 or emailing email@example.com.
The American Museum of Natural History welcomes learners with disabilities into its Seminars on Science program and will make reasonable accommodations for them. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you require information about requesting accommodation services. These services are only available to registered students with documented disabilities. Please submit requests at least two weeks prior to the start of the course.
Assessments are based on a detailed grading rubric developed for this course:
Weekly Overview and Expectations
Week 1: What is Water?
Covering over 70 percent of Earth’s surface, water is central to the movement of matter and energy on Earth. Only 3% is fresh, and only one percent of that is available to us in aquifers, lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. We begin our investigation by exploring how water circulates through Earth systems and is distributed across the planet. Civilization has always centered around access to water, with usage patterns varying across nations and regions. We consider how humans move and store water, and the local and global effects of altering water quality and flow, from lowering water tables to damming the Colorado River. A supplementary essay explains the unique properties of the water molecule.
Week 2: Water & Life
This week describes the vast network of living things that depend on freshwater, and how water shapes wetland, freshwater, and marine communities. We look at different kinds of freshwater systems and the services they provide, from mangrove forests that protect coastlines to watersheds that purify water and mitigate flooding — not to mention hydropower, transportation, and recreation. How do enterprises like agriculture, industry, and urbanization affect the way these systems function? The week wraps up with an explanation of the concept of ecosystem services and the challenge of assessing their value. The Case Study looks at the Mekong River basin, where millions of people depend on the river’s rich sediment and fish-filled waters.
Week 3: Why Are Wetlands So Important?
Long dismissed as worthless, wetlands were routinely paved over or filled in until scientists grasped the critical biological, chemical, and physical roles they play in Earth systems. This week, we look at what defines a marsh, bog, or peatland (to name just a few kinds of wetlands), and how different species have adapted to these highly variable ecosystems. Nature’s water filters, they act as “kidneys” of the landscape, play a key role in the water cycle, and are extremely biologically productive. We go on to examine the major causes of wetland loss; its effects, both local and global; and mitigation and prevention strategies. This week’s Case Study takes us to Augusta, Georgia, where grasses and man-made marshes clean effluent from a wastewater treatment plant before it drains into the Savannah River
Week 4: Managing Earth’s Freshwater: What Are the Challenges?
This week addresses the location, quality, and scarcity of this finite resource, and the social, economic, and political aspects of managing water supplies. We discuss the sources and uses of freshwater – including its finite nature, the effect of water scarcity on ecosystems and human populations as well as the industrial and agricultural uses of water. In addition, we discuss the human impact on freshwater resources – including the balancing of competing demands on those resources, the nature of water governance, the implications of water as a privatized commodity, and technologies to increase supply and use water more efficiently, like desalination and reuse. Many of these issues are brought into focus in the first week of a two-week case study of New York City water supply and management, which focuses on stakeholders’ options for meeting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stringent water quality criteria.
Week 5: What Is Clean Water?
This week discusses the effect of water quality on human health, and the feedback within an environment between healthy non-human species and healthy people. Topics include waterborne diseases, water treatment, water pollution, sewage treatment, techniques to identify and remedy threats to watershed and drinking water quality; and the Clean Water Act and other relevant laws. In the second half of the New York City watershed case study , course participants compare their supply and management solutions to those arrived at in the New York City Watershed Memorandum of Agreement. They also consider the ongoing physical, chemical, and political factors involved in delivering water safely and reliably to nine million customers.
Week 6: How Should We Manage Water Systems?
What key challenges does the future hold? What new technological and political tools can we draw on? This week steps back for a look at the environmental, policy, and socio-economic factors that affect water management on a global level. Topics include climate change (including its relationship to water resources; ecosystems and biodiversity; melting ice and rising sea levels; and weather) as well as best practices (including water resource policy, management and conservation). This week’s case study focuses on the Zambezi River Basin of southern Africa, which is home to some 40 million people who rely on it for drinking water, fisheries, hydropower, industry, ecosystem maintenance, and other uses. We look at why transboundary management of shared water resources is so challenging, especially in the developing world.