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Introduction to Economics, Water Use and the Environment


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Economics, Water Use, and the Environment is comprised of seven lessons designed to help students examine water use and conservation as an economic issue with important political and social implications. Using contemporary examples and real-world analogies, the seven lessons show how students can use economic reasoning to analyze water-related issues.

Questions answered in the lessons

  • What is the role of price in determining how much water people “need,” and in how they choose to use the wa­ter they have?
  • How valuable is water?
  • What water rights do people have? What are the conse­quences of different rules about ownership of water?
  • What is the connection between property rights, incen­tives, and water quality?
  • How do the rules regarding ownership and use of wa­ter encourage or discourage conflict among competing users?
  • How clean should water be? Who should pay for clean­ing it if it isn’t clean enough?
  • How effective are governments in preventing pollu­tion or ensuring conservation?
  • Why do citizens’ desires for environmental quality of­ten seem to be ignored by legislators and elected offi­cials?

Lesson organization

Each lesson contains the following components:

  • Introduction and teacher background. The background section provides explanations of economic concepts and a guide to their use in the analysis featured in the lesson. In addition, the background section includes real-world examples relevant to lesson.  For teachers who wish to look further into the issues raised in the lesson, or for students undertaking extended study, the background section also indicates directions for additional inquiry.
  • A listing of the economics content standards (from the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics) addressed in the lesson. (Teachers should note that the lessons focus on content denoted by the content standards. Additional instruction may be necessary to provide background for work related to these standards. The classroom assessments included in the lessons are provided to help teachers determine students’ level of proficiency and the possible need for additional in­struction.)
  • A list of key economic concepts developed in the lesson.
  • An outline of procedures, including estimates of time needed and a listing of materials.
  • Closure: A suggested classroom assessment to follow the activity. (The assessments are aligned to the instructional activity. That is, the instructional activity is intended to provide students practice in the skills and content needed for the assessment. Congruence between the activity and the assessment is intentionally strong.)

Instructional Focus

Economics, Water Use, and the Environment is designed to teach economic reasoning.  Water issues are the context in which economics instruction is delivered. The seven lessons taught in sequence offer an excellent introduction to key concepts and principles students will use throughout their study of microeconomics:

  • Scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost
  • Prices and other incentives
  • Cooperation through market
  • Property rights
  • How the “rules of the game” affect people’s choices

On the other hand, teachers may choose to use the lessons individually. While there are connections among the lessons and an implied progression, each lesson is complete in itself. Also, individual lessons can be used to supple­ment instruction in a variety of disciplines and topics. While economics, history, geography, and current events provide the obvious connections, don’t overlook the possibility that insights from economics might enhance stu­dents’ understanding of other areas–literature or politics, for example.

Vocabulary of Water Measurement

Teacher background materials for the seven lessons include references to the vocabulary of water measurement. The chart below translates some of this vocabulary to more familiar terminology.

Water Equivalents
1 cubic foot =7.48 gallons =62.4 pounds
1 acre foot =43.56 cubic feet =325.829 gallons
1 cubic foot/second (cfs)   =449 gallons/minuteor646,272 gallons/day
1 cfs for 24 hrs. = 1.983 acre-feet
1 cfs for 30 days = 59.5 acre-feet
1 million gallons/day (mgd) for 1 year = 724 acre-feet
1000 gallons/minute (gpm) =2.23 cfs =3.07 acre-feet/minor4.42 acre-feet/dayor1121 acre-feet/year