Healthy river systems serve a wide variety of functions, from recreation to habitat provision and crop production. Because there may be tradeoffs between some functions, effective floodplain management requires integrating cultural, economic, and ecosystem components. The Mississippi River basin and the management of its floodplains illustrate many of these challenges. Flooding of the Mississippi has become increasingly frequent in the last half century. Decades of alterations to the river structure to facilitate commercial navigation and agricultural production have resulted in a floodplain largely severed from the main stem of the river and subsequently, the decreased provision of multiple ecosystem services. Applying a jigsaw case study approach, activities incorporate role-play techniques to explore various human and ecological interests in this complex socio-environmental system. The substance of the case study activity is based on a real community.
The case setting takes place in Olive Branch, Illinois, a community of less than one thousand residents, devastated by the flood event of 2011. Students are asked to complete background reading on the ecological function of floodplains and historical management practices before their first exposure to the case. Students are assigned one of four stakeholder roles: hunter, local resident, farmer, or conservationist. After meeting within homogenous stakeholder groups to develop their positions, they meet in jigsaw groups with multiple interests represented. As a “community group” of diverse, vested citizens, students compose a letter to a State Senator from Chicago that acknowledges trade-offs among three alternatives in Olive Branch: relocate the town and restore floodplain habitats in its place (the costliest option), relocate the town and promote agriculture expansion (less costly than habitat restoration), or, do nothing and continue business as usual. The assignment requires students to synthesize information and argue analytically by simulating the real-world obstacles of stakeholder conflict and compromise in socio-environmental decision-making.