Groundwater and Systems Thinking - Get the Big Picture

Groundwater Flow Model
Friday, September 5, 2014

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#groundwaterpumping, #systemsthinking

This is the second in a series of posts in which we use Systems Thinking to examine the real-life issue presented in the Albuquerque Journal article, Investors Refloating Water Sales Proposal.  Read previous posts here:

Recall the investors in New Mexico who lobbied to pump groundwater near Socorro and pipe it north to the Rio Grande Valley, to Albuquerque and parts north to Santa Fe.  Should this proposal pass or be rejected?  This relevant and real-life concern can be the background for students’ learning geography and geology, the hydrologic cycle and natural resource management, in addition to important 21st century skills associated with problem solving and communication. 

As systems thinkers, your students would pause to consider various aspects of the proposal before jumping to a solution, in particular, they would examine the big picture:

The major players are the groundwater itself, the group proposing to pump and sell the water, the State Engineer that is requiring more detailed planning, and, the silent partner so far, the water users.  Each of these entities is a part of their own system, all of which overlap in this scenario.  If it helps to generalize, we may look at the rancher as a manufacturer with a product to sell.  The groundwater system is the source of raw materials that feeds the manufacturing process. The water users represent the customer.  The opposing State Engineer represents the regulatory system that looks out for the well-being of all three of the others.  This complex system, itself the intersection of four larger systems, has as its purpose to provide water to the users in a manner that is mutually beneficial to the provider.

Block diagram of intersecting systems

Since systems never stand still, but continually change and adjust over time, encourage your students to ponder the timeframe to consider when looking at this system? The amount of time it takes to build the system and get it up and running is an important timeline, but it doesn’t address the question of sustainability.  Is it important to look out 25 years into the future? 50? 90?  Here in Arizona, developers are required to prove 100 years of water availability.  Based on this neighboring example, 100 years is an acceptable timeframe.  How would you help your students choose a timeframe? Would your students be able to justify their choice?

If you were to ask your students to play the role of Judge in this legal case, what need-to-know questions might they ask before passing judgment? I would want to know about the needs and constraints of each of the intersecting systems. For example:

  • Would the water be pumped from the ranch near Datil?
  • What are NM’s laws regarding groundwater pumping?
  • Who would be using the water? For what purpose? What is the magnitude of the need?
  • How will the water be distributed and treated?
  • Who will build and pay for the extra infrastructure that will be needed for delivery and wastewater management?
  • What is the projected population growth for the Rio Grande Valley?
  • What are the other sources of water for that area and how much of the need will those sources meet?
  • What is the groundwater system in that area like?  Is it possible that the aquifer beneath the ranch is the same as the aquifer beneath Albuquerque?

As systems thinkers, the next step might be to look into the contributing larger systems and determine how things change over time.  The Waters Foundation describes this habit of a systems thinker:

Habit: Behavior Over TimeDynamic systems are made up of interdependent elements, the values of which change over time. A systems thinker may record and observe the patterns and trends those changes generate. This can provide insight into the interdependence of the elements and the structure of the system.

Challenge: examine how groundwater changes over time without the extra pumping and with the extra pumping; predict how the users’ needs will change over time.

  • How have the elements changed over time in the past?  How do we expect them to change in the future?
  • What changing elements represent amounts and how quickly/slowly are they increasing or decreasing?
  • What patterns or trends emerge over time?

This is clearly a more complicated issue than the current tug-o-war between the investors and the state engineer.  It is a real-life problem that students can examine to develop systems thinking and problem solving skills in addition to making learning core knowledge relevant and the facts meaningful. Please share your ideas about understanding the big picture, examining change over time, and guiding your students to develop and use these important Systems Thinking habits.

Resources that may help:

Simulated and Measured Water Levels and Estimated Water-Level Changes in the Albuquerque Area, Central New Mexico, 1950–2012

Groundwater Atlas of the United States


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