The story begins with John Wesley Powell, the great one-armed adventurer and geologist. He was made famous for his successful runs through the Colorado River in 1869 and 1872. But perhaps his most important legacy rests in a lesser-known deed: Proposing in 1879 that as the Western states were brought into the union they be formed around watersheds, rather than arbitrary political boundaries. This idea rested on the observation that because of an arid climate, a statewide organization decided by any other factor would lead to water conflict down the road. Powerful forces, most prominently the rail companies, were proposing that state’s boundaries be aligned in ways best believed to facilitate agriculture, and thus best be enabled to capitalize off the lands given to them by the Federal Government. But the West, Powell observed, was too dry and its soils too poor to support agriculture at a scale common in the East.
Powell set out to produce a map, shown below, depicting what these “watershed states” might look like. (Take a look at any map of the union today, and you’ll know how successful Powell was). 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.
It’s easy to look at Powell’s 134-year-old idea and see amazing prescience. The potential for water conflict in an arid climate was too important an issue to ignore. As Western irrigators opened up more land for agriculture and development, and as cities and towns grew in population, conflicts over water have indeed become more pronounced. In arid places like the Colorado River basin, where multinational agreements and accords with desert towns require minimum flows be served on a yearly basis, the potential for conflict keeps rising.
Which gets me to my “what if”: What if the Western states were formed around watershed as Powell envisioned? What would that look like and could we speculate on what that might mean for the functioning of modern communities? And since we’re going down that road, let’s ask another what if: What if all of the American states were based around principal watershed, from coast to coast – something even Powell didn’t consider.
Armed with an elementary understanding of GIS and various shapefiles, I set out to create such a map. Some notes on the map itself: It doesn’t look like Powell’s, exactly. Since I decided to take a look at the whole of a country rather than just the arid parts, which includes U.S. possessions on the east coast, boundaries will differ. On top of that, I had access to data that Powell did not; namely Hydrologic Unit Code – HUC – shapefiles, which depict watersheds from their largest catchment down to very small, creek-level, areas. My priorities for creating this map were to: end up with 50 states; keep larger watersheds intact; try to locate watershed states in roughly the same geography as present-day states; maintain national borders; and try to keep state capitals in each state. Here’s what I came up with:
Sure looks different. Besides the obvious changes in land mass and state populations, what else might be transformed if the states were composed this way? Donald Worster, author of the must read “Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930’s” and Powell biographer, noted in a 2003 interview on NPR that “We would not have, if Powell’s ideas had carried through, any of our huge federal water projects. And we certainly would not have had anything like the massive urban growth that’s taken place in the West.” This is because Powell wanted to organize new Western communities based on the system used by Mormon settlers in Utah, who effectively used irrigation to divert mountain streams, lakes and rivers to their fields. If new Western communities were organized around water and watersheds and used this form of irrigation agriculture, Powell believed, it would force people to use water efficiently, lest overuse or pollution compromise the source. Powell also believed that such an organization would enable communities to be better prepared to stave off attempts by others to seize their water.
“Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms,” Worster said. “For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”
Maybe. Outside the community organizing aspects of Powell’s vision, I think there are some effects we’d see as a nation if only the state delineation idea had survived:
- Transportation networks could be made more efficient in some places. Low spots in watersheds tend to form the backbone of our transportation systems – roads tend to follow rivers, not ridges. In their present day configuration, state transportation departments sometimes have to maintain roads that they access through adjoining states, or form maintenance agreements with other states to maintain their roads for them. Alta, Wyoming is a good example of this: Its in the Western Teton foothills in Wyoming, but its primary access is via “Ski Hill Road” heading east out of Driggs, Idaho. Locals refer to this situation as “Alta, Wydaho” because it is landlocked from the rest of Wyoming. In the watershed states, that situation no longer exists.
- The Electoral College would be completely changed. States losing and gaining house members would shift the balance of political power substantially.
- Land and wildlife management could be streamlined. Because many of these watersheds encompass unique ecosystems, climates and geographies, a watershed states approach could result in more efficient state land management departments better equipped to deal with their particular regional needs.
- If states were organized around watershed and the idea that water should be used efficiently, then that conservation ethic could also have taken root in the way places were built. Recognizing that it is both fiscally unwise and squandering of agricultural/open space, towns may have grown up with a more compact, mixed use form because of their performance relative to those two benchmarks.
These are a few ideas I have. What do you think?
Had Powell’s vision for the Western states been realized, its tough to say whether the water conflicts this growing nation stands to face would be ameliorated. Human nature is to grow, expand and thrive. We are an inventive and exploratory species, able to create new technologies, new systems and solutions, and become ever more efficient along the way. So much so that it just seems unlikely that population growth and water conflict could be avoided the way Powell envisioned. So while modern day Phoenix would “probably not even exist”, as Worster says, I’d wager that a different version of it would have grown elsewhere.
Moreover, at this stage in our national historic narrative, we are in no position to adjust state boundaries this radically – and while it’s intriguing to write about, it’s not an idea I’m boosting. But perhaps there is the chance that 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.
This article was written by John Lavey who is a land use planner out of the Sonoran Institute’s Bozeman, Montana office. John works with community partners throughout the northern rockies to advance community development, economic development and conservation development goals. To follow more of John’s work click here.