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Putting It All Together

By studying “Making the Desert Bloom”:  The Rio Grande Project, students have learned how the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande irrigation project transformed thousands of acres of arid land along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and Texas.  This complex, interrelated system of storage and diversion dams, reservoirs, canals, and drains was a great achievement for Reclamation’s engineers, although the results were not always what the planners expected.  The following activities will help the students build on what they have learned.

Activity 1:  To Irrigate or Not to Irrigate?
Divide the students in two groups.  Ask one group to study the Rio Grande Project, reviewing information in this lesson and using websites listed in Supplementary Resources or other sources they identify themselves.  Ask the other group to investigate farming in the area where they live.  A local farmer or someone from their state’s agricultural extension service would be a good source for information and might be willing to come speak to the class and answer questions.  The group might want to ask what the climate is, how much rain the area receives, what crops are grown.  For purposes of comparison, temperatures on the Rio Grande Project range from zero to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, average rainfall is 9.5 inches, and the principal crops are still cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, pecans, and grain. 

Do local farmers use irrigation?  If they do, what conditions make it necessary?  What crops can be grown using irrigation that can’t be grown without it?  If they don’t use irrigation, why not?  What do the farmers have to pay for?  What costs might farmers living on an irrigation project have to pay that they wouldn’t pay if they weren’t living on a project?  See if they can find out how much the land in each area costs.  If the land is irrigated, what was the cost per acre for farmland prior to irrigation being available, and what was the cost after irrigation was available?  Ask each group to make a presentation to the class and then hold a whole class discussion comparing agriculture in the Rio Grande valley and in their own area.

Activity 2:  Progressivism and the Reclamation Act
The Reclamation Act, passed in 1902, was one of the first pieces of legislation passed under the Progressive Era administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Other legislation dating from the same period included the Pure Food and Drug Act (1903), the Meat Inspection Act (1906), the Hepburn Act (1906), and the Antiquities Act (1906).  Divide the class into small groups and ask each group to investigate one of these laws.  Why was it written (for example, to end an abuse, to fix a problem, to achieve a positive goal, or for all these reasons)?  What were its main provisions?  Who supported it?  Did it apply to the whole country, or just some areas or people?  Who got the most benefit from it (for example, farmers, workers, everybody)?  Is it still in force?  Has it been amended over time?  If so, in what ways and why?  What long-term effects has it had?  Do they think these effects have been generally positive or negative?  Did it achieve its stated purposes?  Has it had any unintended consequences?  Have each group report to the class and then hold a whole class discussion comparing these pieces of legislation to the Reclamation Act.  How were they alike?  How did they differ?

Activity 3:  The Future of the Rio Grande
The water flowing down the Rio Grande has been used and sometimes reused by the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.  In many years, there is no water left in the riverbed at all due to diversions along the way.  In April 2011, Reclamation issued a report suggesting that global climate change may cause temperatures to rise across the West during the course of the 21st century and annual precipitation may decrease about 2.5 percent by 2050.9  Temperatures in the Rio Grande Basin could increase by 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Rainwater run-off in the Colorado and Rio Grande basins may decline.  If these predictions are correct, the supply of water available in the Rio Grande will fall. 

Divide the class into small groups and ask them to investigate how demand for the river’s water is likely to change.  The websites in Supplementary Resources have information on recent changes in the amount of land irrigated in the Rio Grande Project and in other irrigation projects along the river.  These data can be used to project possible changes in the need for irrigation water.  The Rio Grande also provides municipal water and hydroelectric power to the cities of Albuquerque and Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.  Ask students to find how the population in those cities has changed in recent years.  If these trends continue, how are the cities’ needs for water and electricity likely to change?  Finally, a 1907 treaty requires the United States to supply 60,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande water to Mexico every year.  Consider the potential consequences to those people and to international relations if the United States couldn’t continue to fulfill its treaty commitment.

What potential problems are suggested by comparing the projected trends in the supply of water in the river and the needs of its consumers?  What might be done to mitigate these problems?  The Reclamation report cited above stresses the importance of water conservation.  Ask the students to review the irrigation websites in Supplemental Resources.  What water conservation techniques do they mention?  Is there anything else in these websites that suggests ways to use the Rio Grande’s water more efficiently?  What advantages and disadvantages do these alternatives offer?  Have the students put what they have learned into an exhibit, website, podcast, or other format that they can share with other classes.  Ask them also to consider how climate change could affect the water supply and related resources where they live.  What do studies say about the supply for the student’s home area?  Is there enough water for the home area to grow and meet needs in the next 50 years?  Discuss ways students can use water and other resources more efficiently in their own homes and lives.

Activity 4:  Where Does Your Water Come From?
Most people answer that question by saying “From the faucet.”  Perhaps a better question would be “Where does it start?”  Ask students to investigate the water system in their community.  What is the source for their community water (river, ground water wells, other sources)?  Is it obtained locally?  If not, how far does it have to travel before it gets to their community?  Who provides the water to the community and to their home (a local government, a water utility, a for-profit water company)?  How much water is used at their home, and how does usage change through the seasons?  How much do their parents pay for the water they use?  Does the money go to a department of the local government or elsewhere?  What facilities, structures, and systems exist to obtain, store, purify, and deliver the water to consumers?  Who built and owns them (Federal, state, or local government; private companies; others)?  Who checks the facilities for safety and who is responsible for keeping them in good working condition?  What standards exist for drinking water, and who checks to see if community water meets those standards?  Are there reservoirs to store the water?  If so, where are they?  Who built them?  Who maintains the dam that creates the reservoir?

Some of these water-related facilities may be historic structures.  Some may have been built by a governmental entity, others by private companies.  Some may be impressive structures that were sources of great local pride when they were first created.  Others may be relatively modest, but still important parts of the water distribution system. 

Have students work in groups to research these questions and present what they have learned to the class.  Ask them to determine whether any of these facilities are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and, if so, obtain copies of the National Register documentation to use as part of their research.  Ask each group to select one of the historic structures and to develop interpretive materials.  They may create their choice of an exhibit, a podcast, an online brochure or tour, a short documentary, an article for the local newspaper or historical society newsletter, an on-site tour, or other interpretive product.  Select a day when the students can present their findings to the rest of the class, a school assembly, or parents’ open house, or even to a community group.  Offer the interpretive materials to organizations such as the local historical society, library, and/or chamber of commerce.  If they identify a facility that deserves to be officially recognized for its historic significance, the class may want to initiate the nomination process for local or state designation or for listing in the National Register.

Communities, government agencies, and private companies that own water systems or facilities periodically monitor their condition and safety and prepare maintenance plans to keep them safe.  Many have also taken steps to assess whether their water systems could be at risk in the event of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other emergencies.  Ask students how damage to or loss of the water supply would affect their community if it lasted for a day, or a week, or for a longer period.  Have the people responsible for the water supply completed a risk assessment study and maintenance checks?  If so, what risks or maintenance issues (if any) were identified, and what sort of corrective or protective measures were put in place?  If identified needs were not corrected, students may want to consider writing a letter to the responsible entity asking for information about when they are scheduled or the reasons why they have not yet been completed.  If timely plans to address identified risks do not exist, the class might consider taking action to call this to the attention of the local or state government or writing a letter to the local newspaper.

9  SECURE Water Act, Section 9503(c)—Reclamation Climate Change and Water, 2011. (Denver, CO: U.S. Department of the Interior, Policy and Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, 2011)  (accessed 12/11/2011).



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