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Muddy Waters: A Historical View of Land Use Patterns, Water Quality, and the Conservation Movement
Equipment & Supplies
  • Overhead projector or equipment of choice for projecting images. Six clear plastic two liter soft drink bottles filled with water. Food coloring, soil, cooking oil for "polluting" the water. Funnel for adding "pollution" to bottles.


Download and copy the combined worksheets for this lesson.

Day One

1. Introduce the lesson by displaying three bottles filled with water. Bottle #1 should be crystal clear; Bottle #2 very murky, oily and dirty; and Bottle #3, cleaner than the second, but still not as clear as the first. Ask the students which of these bottles of water they would like to drink from? If you were a fish, which water would you want to live in? Tell students that the first bottle of water represents the water quality before the first colonists arrived in Pennsylvania. The second bottle represents a time in our history when the water quality was at its worse and the third bottle represents the present time, after efforts were made to improve water quality.

2. Begin the lesson by showing students various photographs, from the Teacher Resources page or using a projection method of choice, that represent changes in human activity and their effects on the land over time:

While each photograph is being displayed ask students the following questions to identify direct or indirect impact on water quality evident in the photos:

  • Describe what you see in the photograph.

  • (For Sources 2-5) What type of human activity is going on? What are the environmental effects of this activity? How does it alter the land?

  • (For Sources 6-11) What human activities caused the environmental effects in the photo? How has the land been altered? What are the consequences of these alterations on the environment?

  • How does this activity affect water quality? How long does it take or has it taken for these effects to be felt?

  • Create a broad category or theme of human activity affecting water quality (e.g., "agricultural practices, industrialization, forms of recreation, etc.") in which to place this photograph.

These activities would all have a direct or indirect impact on water quality (agricultural practices, logging, mining, industrialization, forms of recreation) and would represent the point and nonpoint pollution Explain "point" and "nonpoint" pollution. (See Background Information) Go through the photos again and ask students to decide whether each is an example of point or nonpoint pollution. Distribute Worksheet 1: Land Use Patterns over Time and guide the students in completing the chart by summarizing information for each characteristic and time period. (Source 13: Land Use Patterns Over Time Teacher's Guide)

3. Handout Source 13: Land Use Patterns Over Time Teacher's Guide. Have students work in small groups with Worksheet 2: Impact of Land Use Patterns on Water Quality and evaluate the impact each of the changes or activities had on water quality at the given time period. Students should assign either a "high" or "low" impact rating to each category. A "high" impact rating would indicate significant degradation of water quality in the area and a "low" impact would indicate little or no degradation of water quality in the area.

4. After students complete the worksheet, discuss the various rankings as a class. Students should defend their choice and explain why they felt a certain activity would or would not degrade water quality. Have students determine which time period represented the worst time in history for water pollution and thus poor water quality.

Day Two

1. Begin the class by having three bottles of clean water at the front of the classroom. Have students review Worksheet 2 and ask them if there were any activities before 1600 that they ranked as having a "high" impact on water quality. (Because there were few, the water will remain much as it is in Bottle #1.) Ask the students which time period had the greatest impact on water quality? (Most likely they will choose 1875-1930.) For each of the land use patterns that were rated as "high" impact have volunteers add food coloring, dirt or oil to Bottle #2. Then, for 1980-present have students add "pollution" to Bottle #3. Water in the second and third bottles will probably look very similar.

2. Compare the three bottles of water the students "polluted" to those from the day before which the teacher had prepared. Bottle #3 from day one should be much cleaner than Bottle #3 the students "polluted." Explain that Bottle #3 from the first day, with less pollution, is a better representation. Students should speculate on "why" it is less polluted.

3. Explain that something very important started to change around the 1930s. The concept of "conservation" and protection and management of our natural resources (including water) became popular. (Mention of markerGifford Pinchot, former governor of Pennsylvania, could be made at this point as an advocate of conservation.) People began to realize that what they did on or to the land had a very dramatic effect on their water quality. People also realized they were not isolated and even though they may not pollute their own water, (for example, they may not live on a farm) what someone else did "upstream" could have an effect on their water quality. Thus the concept of working together to improve water quality within a watershed was born. (Students should be reminded that water quality improvement was a long process and many laws and changes had to be made before results were noticed.)

4. Provide students with a definition of a watershed: "A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place." (USEPA.) Project diagram of the cross-section of a watershed (Source 11: Cross section diagram of a watershed) Explain that watersheds are formed by physical boundaries not political boundaries, and therefore when a problem occurs within a watershed it often requires cooperation among various groups to solve the problem. Explain that this "watershed management" concept actually began in Pennsylvania.

5. Distribute the historical summary of the Honey Hollow Watershed (marker Source 1: The Story of Honey Hollow) and have students read the story and complete the time line provided (Worksheet 3: Timeline for Honey Hollow Watershed) Conduct a class discussion, highlighting important points of the article. How would you describe the land at the time the Native Americans lived there? How were the land use patterns of the early settlers both similar and different than the native inhabitants? What changes occurred in the 19th century that affected land use and water quality? What conservation methods were adopted in the 20th century within the Honey Hollow watershed and how did they affect water quality?

6. Summarize by having students discuss activities in their own watershed, which may influence the water quality of someone else "downstream." (These could include very personal things like riding in cars which leak oil, riding dirt bikes on trails that create erosion, living in a home with a failing septic system, golfing on courses that use a lot of fertilizer, etc.) Have students create a poster, pamphlet or public service announcement, which reminds people that what they do on land, affects water quality.

Day Three (Optional)

1. Obtain a copy of a topographic map, which includes the school district, and have students delineate local watersheds. Have students identify current land use patterns as well as evidence of historic land use. Evidence of conservation methods should also be noted (sewage treatment, contour farming, diversion ditches, etc.) Assign students the task of writing a short informative newspaper article on one land use patterns within their watershed. They should look at the land use from a "then and now" perspective. They should include information on what the land use pattern was, how it adversely affected water quality, and what conservation method was (or should be) used to improve water pollution at the local level and "downstream."

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