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10. Natural Disasters

Water Use: Tragedy in the Owens River Valley

9-10 Grade/Biology or 10-12 Grade/Ecology

Water is essential to life and humans are no exceptions. These lessons will lead students to an understanding of the importance of well-managed water use, while focusing on an historical water use event highlighted in the Part 9 of the PBS videos on The West, One Sky Above Us.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Online Resources
Relevant National Standards


Students will:

  • develop an understanding of the importance of water to human endeavors,
  • define watershed, aquifer, and ground water,
  • map not only the geographical area of a watershed, but also the land use practices of the people within that watershed,
  • research the environmental impacts of an historical engineering feat, and
  • evaluate watershed use and express that evaluation in a written letter format.

Estimated Time
5 class periods (90 minute blocks, can use less time if research is assigned as homework or if in-depth study of local watershed is omitted)

Necessary Materials

  • White paper
  • Topographical maps of a local watershed
  • Clear Mylar paper and tape
  • Markers and colored pencils
  • VCR and TV
  • Encyclopedias, Internet access, library reference materials
  • Historical photos of the Owens River Valley

Teaching Procedure

    Day 1
  1. Pose the question: Why do we need water? Allow students a few minutes to brainstorm in small groups to come up with a list of water needs. Each group should have a large piece of white paper to use to present its list to the rest of the class. Compile a class list of common water needs as each group presents. Be sure that the final list includes metabolism needs for both plants and animals as well as industrial, sanitation, and leisure needs.

    The next question to pose is: Where do we get our water?

  2. Introduce the concepts of watersheds, ground water and aquifers. See Online Resources below for links to references.

  3. Provide the students with a copy of a topographical map of an area that is familiar to them. These can be purchased on-line (and then photocopied) from USGS: Science for a Changing World
    Or use the topographical maps of Los Angeles and Owens River Valley

  4. Explain that they will be mapping their watershed. Before beginning to map the watershed, be certain that all students understand the features of the map: scale, contour lines, other symbols. (USGS also has source material on how to read a topographical map that may be useful.) To outline a particular watershed:
    • Mark the furthest downstream point included in the area of interest. All waterways upstream from this point should be part of the watershed in question.
    • It's a good idea to trace all waterways with a colored pencil or marker (blue, preferably!) and to add arrows periodically showing direction of water flow. Remember water flows downhill.
    • Using a pencil, place X's on the highest points of elevation surrounding the waterways. These peaks can be found by looking for circles representing ridge tops.
    • Connect the high elevation X's with a single line that surrounds the main body of water in the watershed. Students should be made aware that all water that falls within this boundary will eventually drain into the main waterway identified in the watershed.

    Days 2 and 3

  5. If students are using maps of their own geographical area, the next step is to complete a background investigation of the watershed. For this, the class can be divided into groups and given a particular type of information to research. Provide time and materials in class, or assign as homework. Important information regarding watersheds includes:
    • Land use
    • Ownership: public or private?
    • Human population
    • Locations of industries, landfills and point discharges
    • Stream uses: fishing, floating, boating, swimming, drinking water supply, irrigation, cattle watering, etc.
    • Historical land uses
    • Physical and biological characteristics of the area.

  6. Students may need to contact local conservation or natural resource departments, utility companies, public works departments, city or county planning departments, city or county assessor's offices or the Bureau of Land Management to find out how their particular watershed is being used.
    Locations of such offices and/or websites may be found at MSN Yellow Pages.

  7. Have students present their findings to the class, so that each can add the information to his/her watershed map. Establish a functional key (such as green circles to represent forests, black x's to show industry, etc.) to use for each addition to the map. Have students tape a Mylar sheet over each base map and fill in the details of watershed use, based on the students' research and following the established key. By completing the watershed map, students should have come to a good understanding of how land and water is used in that particular watershed.
    Note: If using the maps from The West website, the background investigation of the Owens River watershed and the Los Angeles watershed could come partially from the photos presented in the video. From the historical photos, students would estimate how much of the areas were agricultural, naturally wooded, industrialized, etc. and then compare that to modern photos of each area. This should be completed after viewing Episode 9 of The West: One Sky Above Us as described in Day 4.

    Day 4

  8. Introduce students to the Owens River Valley- a watershed with a tragic history. Show episode 9 of The West, segment entitled "One Sky Above Us",7:47.
    Direct students to pay particular attention to the quotations of Mulholland,9:13, 10:22 and 12:20
    Also be sure to pause the video at 9:40, 9:59 to view "before" shots of Owens Valley and also pause at 14:45 for "after" shots of Owens Valley. Point out the distance between Los Angeles and the Owens River on a map. The map of California can be used for this.

  9. Discuss the ethics of the water transfer,specifically
    • What were the benefits and costs?
    • Were the benefits worth the costs?
    • Was Los Angeles truly more deserving of the water than the Owens River Valley residents?
    As a class, generate a list of questions inspired by the video. Questions could include:
    • How many people were living in the Owens River Valley?
    • What happened to the people of Owens River Valley?
    • Who needed the water more, the residents of Owens River Valley or Los Angeles?
    Display photos of the Owens River Valley before and after the water transfer to aid discussion.

  10. Days 4 and 5: Research. Tell students that they will be composing letters to Mulholland and Eaton stating their position either supporting or protesting the Owens River Valley project. In order to write an effective letter, they should find out more about their audience. Students should first develop character sketches of both Fred Eaton and William Mulholland using the information from the People in the West section of the PBS website.

    Additional sources for biographical information include:
    Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 553: Mulholland Waters Los Angeles
    William Mulholland: The Man Who Built the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct

    Have students research:

    1. Family background
    2. Educational background
    3. Work history
    4. Motivation

    Students will also need to access other references to find out more details about the Owens River Valley. One such on-line reference is William Mulholland and the Collapse of St. Francis Dam
    Periodicals and encyclopedias may also provide information on the incident.

  11. After students have researched the people and events of the Owens River Valley tragedy, have them decide if the benefits of the aqueduct system were worth the costs.
  12. For a final project, have each student write a letter to Fred Eaton, William Mulholland, or a government official either in support of or against the St. Francis Dam Project. Emphasize the use of supporting details to back up opinions.

Assessment Recommendations
Student work may be assessed using the following criteria:

  1. Participation in discussion and presentation of brainstorming ideas.

  2. Research findings on local watershed use (is information pertinent, from a reputable source, etc).

  3. Correctly identified and labeled watershed map.

  4. Well-supported letter stating position.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. Read the newspaper for articles pertaining to local watershed usage. Write letters to the editor or other appropriate individuals in support or against local decisions about watershed use.

  2. Have students conduct a survey of 5 adults to see how much they know about watershed management. The class could develop a question set to ask the adults, ranging from the simple "What is a watershed?" to "What local laws are designed to protect our watershed?" or "How many industrial sites are affecting our watershed?"

  3. Have students write letters or design editorial cartoons for the school newspaper urging the student body to become more aware of local watershed management and/or threats to their own watershed.

Online Resources

Watersheds Information Network
EPA: Surf Your Watershed
Know Your Watershed

Relevant National Standards

This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

Content Standard C: Interdependence of Organisms (9-12)

  • Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of infinite size, but environments and resources are finite. This fundamental tension has profound effects on the interactions between organisms.
  • Human beings live within the world's ecosystems. Increasingly, humans modify ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption. Human destruction of habitats is threatening current global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly affected.
Content Standard E: Understandings about Science and Technology (9-12)
  • Science and technology are pursued for different purposes. Scientific inquiry is driven by the desire to understand the natural world, and technological design is driven by the need to meet human needs and solve human problems. Technological solutions may create new problems. Sometimes scientific advances challenge people's beliefs and practical explanations concerning various aspects of the world.
Content Standard F: Natural Resources (9-12)
  • Human populations use resources in the environment in order to maintain and improve their existence. Natural resources have been and will continue to be used to maintain human populations. The earth does not have infinite resources; increasing human consumption places severe stress on the natural processes that renew some resources, and it depletes those resources that cannot be renewed.
  • Humans use many natural systems as resources. Natural systems have the capacity to reuse waste, but that capacity is limited. Natural systems can change to an extent that exceeds the limits of organisms to adapt naturally or humans to adapt technologically.

About the Author
Victoria Babcock has been teaching biology and physical science for the last 5 years at Hannibal High School. She has also coached the Academic Team, sponsored the Science Club, and organized a high school Stream Team. In addition, Ms. Babcock designed events for Science Olympiad on cell biology, water quality and practical data gathering and has worked under contract with NetTrekker to evaluate biology websites. Before teaching, she worked with the educational outreach department of the St. Louis Science Center.

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