Socio-environmental synthesis of a water conflict – A teaching case study (2017-3)

Printer-friendly versionPDF version
Feb 05, 2018
Pranay Ranjan

 Agricultural drainage is an integral feature of the agricultural landscape in the Midwestern United States. Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), a public utility company providing drinking water for approximately 500,000 residents in Des Moines, the capital city of Iowa, and its surrounding areas, filed a federal lawsuit against 10 upstream drainage districts in March 2015. The lawsuit claimed that the drainage districts were channeling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for the downstream residents in Des Moines and its surrounding areas. The lawsuit contended that agricultural drainage tiles were disrupting the natural conditions that otherwise treat nitrates and keep them from entering downstream waterbodies. Damages and penalties were sought from the drainage districts for the costs incurred by the utility company in removing nitrates from drinking water. The lawsuit also sought to have farmers regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, as point source of pollution. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in March 2017.

Keeping the DMWW lawsuit at the core, a classic case of water quality conflict involving upstream-downstream stakeholders, the following case study aims at enabling students understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the environmental and social components of water quality management. Using stakeholder analysis, creation of mental models, and role-play activity, students will develop an understanding of how a situation of conflict unfolds when water users face collective action problems. The case study also situates the Iowa water quality conflict within the broader context of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. This case study is suitable for interdisciplinary programs where students are trained in both the natural and the social sciences. The case study is suitable for upper level undergraduate students with a class strength of 20-25 students. 



Estimated time frame: 
A few class periods (i.e., less than 3 hours)
SES learning goals: 

SES Competency Domains:

  • Systems Thinking
Has this been tested in the class room: 
Does this case have an answer key: 
Share: Facebook Icon Twitter Icon Linked Icon