This map shows what America would look like if it followed its watersheds.

It's an America designed to use water more efficiently, and reduce state conflicts over water.

Made by John Lavey, a land use planner at the Sonoran Institute, it's inspired by an idea of 19th-century adventurer John Wesley Powell.

In 1879, Powell proposed that "as the Western states were brought into the union they be formed around watersheds, rather than arbitrary political boundaries."

Powell's map of Western 'watershed states' is very different that what we have today.

Lavey's map imagines Powell's idea across the whole of America. He took Hydrologic Unit Codes--which detail the largest catchments to the small creeks--then gerrymandered state boundaries, keeping capitals and national borders.

2013-10-23

A New Map Of The U.S., Created From Where We Get Our Water

Instead of fighting over water, what if each state's boundaries let it get water from one source? Check out the Watershed States of America.

This map shows what America would look like if it followed its watersheds. It's an America designed to use water more efficiently, and reduce state conflicts over water. Think state conflicts over water aren't a big deal? Then you don't know that Georgia, Florida, and Alabama are engaged in a massive battle over their water sources. There's a similar situation in the dry Southwest. Will the states go to war? Almost certainly not--but there must be a better solution.

Made by John Lavey, a land use planner at the Sonoran Institute, the map is inspired by an idea from 19th-century adventurer and geologist John Wesley Powell. In 1879, Powell proposed that "as the Western states were brought into the union they be formed around watersheds, rather than arbitrary political boundaries." Powell's map of Western "watershed states" is very different than what we have today.

Unfortunately, back then, the railway lobby wouldn't have it:

The rail lobby, buoyed by Charles Dan Wilbur and his theory that “rain follows the plough,” successfully swayed congressional opinion to accept state’s boundaries in their contemporary form.

Lavey's map imagines Powell's idea across the whole of America. He took Hydrologic Unit Codes--which detail the largest catchments to the small creeks--then gerrymandered state boundaries, keeping capitals and national borders. Lavey says if America had implemented Powell's concept, it would have forced "people to use water efficiently," and led to both better transport networks and management of land and wildlife.

If John Wesley Powell had had his way, communities would have grown up with a different water ethic, one that considered longer term into the future than the next cycle of the plow.

Without railways, intensive agriculture and mass urbanization, the West wouldn't be the West it is today. That was made possible by bending the water supply. Still, it's interesting to wonder if states would be less at each other's throats if they all lived within their natural water limits.

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4 Comments

  • Katherin Kirkpatrick

    How does the Oregon Coast, where towns receive their water from local watersheds that drain directly into the Pacific Ocean, become part of Washington? Is the rest of this map based on such shaky science?

  • Geoff Puryear

    Right? The Umpqua Watershed, which is the only watershed to actually be within one county (Douglas County, Oregon) is a part of Washington? psh

  • HL Parker

    Great map - while not about water boundaries per se, the documentary film Rock the Boat looks at the Los Angeles River - where LA's water comes from, why the riverbed is encased in concrete - and the journey to revitalize the river.... www.rocktheboatfilm.com

    Rock the Boat is an adventure film about Los Angeles and the little river that could. With cops in helicopters, civilians in kayaks, and fish stranded on concrete.
    Winner: People's Choice Award - Wild & Scenic Film Festival; Best Feature - FILMAntrhopy; Isla Earth Award for Environmental Filmmaking - Catalina Film Fest

    "The film is AMAZING! As an environmental organization working in policy and land use planning it was refreshing to watch activism end with a positive outcome, not only for the community but for our natural resources. Rock the Boat did an excellent job describing the challenges in the public and agency eye with natural resource access, and showed how true grass-roots initiatives can accomplish large feats for the community and the environment. This film is truly inspiring and everyone at the screening left with a smile and empowered to make a difference everyday! " – Alexis Ollar, Executive Director, Mountain Area Preservation

  • suevanhattum

    I wonder why Washington and Oregon were done this way. Oregon would be very unhappy to lose its coastline. I see that Michigan (my home state for most of my life) doesn't change much, though it should probably lose the upper peninsula to Wisconsin. New York doesn't make much sense to me, either - if we were going to try to do this...