Autumn River

The United (Watershed) States of America

In a departure from perhaps a more typical blog post here on Community Builders, today I throw on the lenses of historical revisionism to ask a big “what if”. Here goes.

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.

John Wesley Powell's proposed map of the Western United States, with boundaries according to watersheds.

John Wesley Powell’s proposed map of the Western United States, with boundaries according to watersheds.

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:

United Watershed States of America 2

Watershed states map of the United States of America (updated version). (If you want finer grain detail, which this map includes, click on the image to visit our flickr page) OR go to the new version I posted in Google Earth.

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.

[*11/07/13 UPDATE: I’m working on a series of products that explore this concept further. My first step was to embed the states in Google Earth. You can check that out HERE]

[*11/21/13 UPDATE: I’ve received a number of requests from a number of different organizations and individuals asking that I perform a similar analysis at multiple scales: What would Europe look like under a ‘watershed states” approach? Asia? What about American Counties?  What do we know about the value – we’re talking dollars here – of American watersheds?

These ideas are great, and one’s I’m very interested in pursuing (contingent the funding to do so).

But there is one idea that I can respond to right now, which is “What would these ‘states’ look like without adhering to national borders?” In other words, what if I removed one of my “filters” – maintain national borders? This is something I’ve already done, as a relic of the creation of the original map. So how would THAT look? (hi-res version on our Flickr account, HERE)


[*01/08/14 UPDATE: I have been asked several times to make this map available as a poster for purchase. Done deal. $20 + s/h. I’ll email those I know have expressed an interest. Anyone else interested please email me:]

John Lavey is a Program Director out of Community Builders' Bozeman, Montana office. John works with community partners throughout the northern rockies to advance community development, economic development and conservation development goals.

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63 Responses to The United (Watershed) States of America

  1. Scott says:

    This is an excellent alternative history study — well done, John! As a former county-level watershed planner, I had similar visions and dreams of this type of political division, even at a smaller statewide or county level. The silver lining to our current man-made boundaries is that, in my experience, they have forced us to work more cooperatively across political lines and still think and act more regionally. There are dozens and dozens of watershed groups across the country, forced to operate within, around, and across our current political subdivision system. I would like to believe, ideally so, that such obstacles have made us less isolationist and more interjurisdictional. If watershed boundaries separated us, what issues would have forced us to act united?…

  2. Thank you for the fascinating map. I don’t see how to download a hi-res version, though. When I clicked on it, it was just a small jpeg. Also, do you have a version that is not stretched laterally? Thanks again.

  3. Mike Lavey says:

    This post really does point out how in our country fairly common sense is only that, and at the end of the day we tend to try and accomplish things, at times, by using failed models. As a retired engineer it seems like I would spend a lot of time designing or solving things “around” the obvious – but getting to the obvious had too many obstacles. These bureaucratic, mostly, obstacles are sticky and have a lot of invested power bases. Sometimes you ask yourself “how did something so obvious become darn near impossible”. I really like this view of history and John really points out a great alternative view. Good Job

  4. Jack Bolles says:

    Any chance you could do something similar to Europe and Africa?

  5. Rich says:

    Yes, a high-res downloadable version would be nice!

  6. John Lavey says:

    What happened to our hi-res image? Alas. Here is a better link:

    Check out the Google Earth version too:

    Jack: I’m intrigued by the idea of looking at Europe and Africa through the ‘watershed states’ lens. In fact, its an interesting exercise for all continents. I’ll have to put it on the long list of questions to pursue.

    Sandy: I do not have a different version, although when I began development I looked for shapefiles that had a conical projection, which I prefer. Like I say, I’m a basic GIS user so that limited my ability here.

    • Thanks for the file! That is helpful. If it were proportioned the same as the typical US map, it would help kids compare the size and shapes of the watershed states to the political versions. Now that this is done, it seems like it wouldn’t be hard to make a translation map without needing more GIS. Are you making this available for us to do something like that and use it in a classroom or science center display? With full credit to you, of course. (I teach kids K-12 about watersheds.)

  7. John Lavey says:

    Hi Sandy, I’m happy to let you use the map for educational purposes. The piece online (obviously) doesn’t have a legend, so for the cartographically-minded out there, you might think about adding one.

  8. tk says:

    John, an interesting article and look back but I’m curious how you think land and wildlife management would be streamlined through this ‘powell’ perspective as I just don’t see it.

    The ‘line’ being based on hydrologic condition or arbitrary political boundary has little to do with wildlife and land use management in my mind, but perhaps I’m missing something?

  9. Lea Guthrie says:

    Really, really interesting article, John. Especially in light of all the present issues of water use, development pressures, limited resources (both natural and financial). I would also have to assume cities like Las Vegas wouldn’t exist. What about port centers like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco? Would those still be of substantial size? Where would the natural larger cities fall?

  10. When Italy deregulated domestic water (it was formerly govt. owned) it divided the country into watersheds and gave each private water company a watershet (I believe there were about seven).

    Water suppliers don’t need to be restricted to just one state. Maybe it would be possible to do something along this line, but just for water.

  11. Nancy Fullerton says:

    Enjoyed your map and article. I want to direct your attention to the state of Georgia’s efforts to re-draw their border with the state of Tennessee in order to access water in the Tennessee River for Atlanta. Tennessee is saying, “Nothing doing!”

  12. Pingback: “What if” boundaries of the 50 U.S. states morphed into 50 watersheds? | Exopermaculture

  13. Rich Buckley says:

    Compare these ecological maps to the original National Geographic maps of the Native American Peoples pre-1500’s map of their tribal boundaries.

  14. Pingback: Following the Local Watersheds | natespin

  15. Mike E. says:

    Great map, though I’d suggest using a projection more appropriate to this scale. Lambert Conformal Conic is one commonly used projection for the continental US:

  16. allie says:

    Any plans to offer print editions of this map?

    • John Lavey says:

      allie: Yes, I do plan to offer print editions. My colleague and I are working on an improved map, and I’ll be sending out an update when its finished (should be Very soon). Thanks for your interest.

  17. Amy B says:

    See also : Kauffman, Gerald J. (2002). What if… the United States of America were based on watersheds? Water Policy, 4(1), 57-68. doi:

  18. Aaron says:

    I think this is a really cool exercise. As someone who has spent most of my career working in water policy in Arizona, I can say that Powell’s ideas come up not too infrequently. I do feel obliged to take issue with Worster’s assertion that Phoenix wouldn’t exist, however. Don’t forget that The Central Arizona Project wasn’t finished until the early 1990s. Phoenix is where it is in large part because Phoenix is where the Salt, Verde, and Gila Rivers come together – watersheds that would still be in Arizona. As the city grew before Colorado River water was available, it came to rely heavily on groundwater, but it is unknown if in a watershed focused world this would have been any different.

  19. John Lavey says:

    @Allie & Mike E: I’m thinking about conscripting the help of my colleague (and fellow CB blogger) Cameron Ellis who is a gifted GIS user to update this map…use a conical projection, add basic map features like, you know, a key. I think that would look much nicer for print, which, yes, I’m happy to offer.

    @Aaron & @Lea: One of Powell’s more interesting ideas was in establishing local watershed groups that would have had significant power to shape water policy within their watershed state. That they never came to be means I’m extending my “what if” even further, but one has to wonder whether they would have had the power to significantly curb the type of growth Phoenix has seen. Worster certainly seems to think that would have been the case. I’m not so sure. Now take “port” cities (or cities with high annual precip) as Lea points out, and you maybe see the same degree of growth just due to the fact they’ve more water to start with. Powell’s original idea was for the arid western states after all, not ALL the states.

  20. Eric Simpson says:

    Great idea and great map. One question: why the split of Washington, and why not include the southern portion with Oregon? (Ooops, that’s two questions;-)

    • John Lavey says:

      Hi Eric, The watershed state outlines are a function of how the USGS delineates HUC’s coupled with the ‘filters’ I note in the piece. I started with HUC Region data then worked down to Sub-Regions and in some cases down to HUC Accounting Units in order to get the results I got. Remember, I wanted to end up with 50 states so, especially in the east, some watersheds are “broken” up. I agree that some of these “states” look a little odd under this approach, and if someone ever wanted to push for this change (good luck), I’d counsel a few changes. Connecting the WA/OR split being one of them. Also reconnecting the Clark Fork back to the Columbia in what would be WA.

  21. Pingback: United (Watershed) States map now on Google EarthCommunity Builders

  22. Carl Abbott says:

    This is interesting, but the posting also omits a whole lot of history between Powell and the present, including the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s very much along these lines and failed efforts in the 1940s to create comparable Columbia Valley and Missouri Valley authorities. These weren’t efforts to create different states, but to transcend them.

    As for the map, what is the reasoning behind dividing the Ohio River among three “states” and the Columbia River basin among three “states” (I understand “Idaho” as the Snake River, but why split the Columbia roughly along the current state line?

    • John Lavey says:

      Hi Carl, Indeed my post omits the history you note – and much much more. Its not to discount the importance those events had in shaping America and American water policy, it was simply a matter of what I wanted to focus on given limited space (and time) to get to my principal point.

      The watershed state outlines are a function of how the USGS delineates HUC’s coupled with the ‘filters’ I note in the piece. I started with HUC Region data then worked down to Sub-Regions and in some cases down to HUC Accounting Units in order to get the results I got. Remember, I wanted to end up with 50 states so, especially in the east, some watersheds are “broken” up. I agree that some of these “states” look a little odd under this approach, and if someone ever wanted to push for this change (good luck), I’d counsel a few changes. Connecting the WA/OR split being one of them. Also reconnecting the Clark Fork back to the Columbia in what would be WA.

  23. L says:

    Delaware got quite an upgrade! So happy to know that’s my new state! I feel like I live in it already.

  24. Matt says:

    This is great! I was hoping I could find a higher resolution map of the contiguous watersheds, it would be great to see the river names and such. Cheers!

  25. Pingback: The United Watershed States of America (map) | Community BuildersCommunity Builders

  26. Craig Russell says:

    Great work John! Fascinating. One question about last map above, that does not concern itself with international borders. It’s just a first impression, but it seems that it only takes additional land from Canada and Mexico, without ever ceding any territory (and water basins) to them. What are your thoughts?

    • John Lavey says:

      Yes, the last map I posted “takes” land from Canada and Mexico because that’s the extent of each watershed. Remember, I’m not drawing these maps, I’m using merely existing data and plotting it at a national scale. Because the majority of the land area of these watersheds lie in present-day U.S., I chose to keep them in my speculative U.S.

  27. T Clark says:

    This is my favorite kind of science essay. It helped me think about the contingency of the way the world turned out and how easy it is to take familiar things for granted.

  28. Sam says:

    Thanks for doing this. Love this stuff. My dad collected odd things over the years. When I was going through his stuff after he passed, I found John Wesley Powell’s survey on arid regions in his stuff. I only kept it because it has the signature of O.E. Babcock who was General Grant’s aide-de-camp. I was so damn impressed with having the signature, I never bothered to research the book.

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  30. Christine Bush says:

    For those of us who do practice GIS, it would helpful if the .kml and/or .shp data files (and metadata) from this project could be shared under a Creative Commons license so that we might be able to make use of your work as well as passively look at it online. Or perhaps you could indicate the source(s) of the geospatial data used to calculate these watersheds?

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  33. Hal Tyler says:

    I’d like this as a poster. Strongly holds to the principles of bioregionalism, which I think would solve many of our environmental problems today.

  34. Hal Tyler says:

    As with someone above, I’d like an update if/when a print edition is available.

  35. Kathleen Reilly says:

    Your map is incorrect in reference to the northern Front Range of Colorado. Denver is on the South Platte River which flows northeast and meets up with the North Platte River in Nebraska. Cheyenne, Denver, Boulder, Ft. Collins, Greeley, are all part of the Platte River watershed. Powell’s map had it correct. There is a lot of constant discussion between Nebraska and Colorado over the water levels, water uses, flow rates, well water withdrawal, etc. between these two states over the South Platte River flow levels. The massive flooding we had recently had ramifications down River in Nebraska as well as Colorado. I don’t see how you can separate the two.

  36. Thanks for this work. I spent considerable time during our recent floods in Colorado exploring the Platte(Nebraska) and Arkansas(Oklahoma) watersheds. This is a perfect addition to a fascinating area of study. Thanks again.

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  38. Sandra Shaw says:

    Have you attempted to map this for the Middle East and former Soviet Union? It would be fascinating to have this view in areas where water is already highly contested.

  39. fishskicanoe says:

    Michigan gets all of the watersheds flowing into the upper Great Lakes? I think not. Better to combine your Ohio with the Michigan watersheds flowing into Lake Huron and make that a State. Then take the watersheds flowing into Lake Michigan and Superior and make that a State. To stick South Bend, Indiana in the same State as Grand Marais, Minnesota makes no sense either by watershed, biome or water uses.

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  41. Michael Keller says:

    Correct spelling is Charles Dana Wilber.

  42. Christopher Beatty says:

    A few commenters have noted the odd arrangement of landmasses in the states of Oregon and Washington. I realize that the intent was to map the current 48 continental states onto a watershed model, but perhaps we should consider the southern component of ‘Washington’ to represent the state of Jefferson: Not a perfect match to the outlines of the proposed state, but as good a match as to any of the existing states…

  43. Chakadog says:

    I didn’t know about this work of JWP. Such a beautiful idea.
    I understand and appreciate the criteria you set for yourself for drawing the new map. But. I would love to see what would happen if one focused only on ecology and left politics behind. That is, didn’t worry about preserving states and state capitals and just looked at the watersheds. The Mississippi drains half the country … Your map seems to lack hierarchy by comparison.
    Thank you for doing this!

  44. Ged Parker says:

    Brilliant exercise. Have you generated a plus and minus table in terms of area? It seems Canada and Mexico are both losers!

  45. John Lavey says:

    I have been asked several times to make this map available as a poster for purchase. Done deal. $20 + s/h. I’ll email those I know have expressed an interest. Anyone else interested please email me:

  46. Dave says:

    Very cool! An obersvation from a GIS hobbyist/noob: It appears that the new Washington looks like a mirror image of the former East and West Pakistans. And we all remember what that geographic schism introduced.

    And continuing with the example of Pakistan, had the experts in 1947 had access to GIS political/cultural demographic data they could have easily predicted the failure of their new state. So can you now apply this data to your new map to see what cultural and political implications might arise? Just for fun?

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  48. Yvette says:

    Great idea, and such a valid concept. However, how would you include sovereign tribal nations? We have tribal lands, some that have been splintered in the process of state building (i.e., this is very prominent in Oklahoma where the land grad occurred following the Dawes Act)? Then there are reservations large areas of contiguous land?

  49. Jeremy says:

    I don’t know if this has already been said but….Power generation could benefit greatly from a watershed borders. Each state could potentially use hydro power and no longer have to use coal or nuclear power. A national grid could be used to share power between bordering and send excess power to states in need.

  50. Hamish says:

    Really interesting. In New Zealand our regional council (the closest we have to states) boundaries were essentially redrawn in 1989 to reflect watersheds – with one or two minor exceptions. While it might improve watershed management it still doesn’t solve all the problems.

  51. Trevor Burrowes says:

    @ Sandra Shaw

    “Have you attempted to map this for the Middle East and former Soviet Union? It would be fascinating to have this view in areas where water is already highly contested.”

    I bet not. It would be helpful, however.

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  53. Kerry says:

    Hi John Lavey, I was wondering where I could find/view John Wesley Powell’s original watershed map?

  54. cody says:

    Really interesting Ideas. As a geographer, I do have to comment that the inclusion of Southern Oregon in Washington is a gross analytical blunder that should be corrected.

  55. Catherine Stanford says:

    I am taking the MOOC “Water in the Western US” with Anne Gold and Eric Gordon at the University of Colorado-Boulder. They suggested we visit your site to learn more about the idea of watershed boundaries. I agree with Hal Tyler (above) who commented that your thinking coincides with bioregionalism. We need to develop an ecological mindset that helps us overcome the history that created the political boundaries we have and pay far more attention to our watersheds. Railroad companies had far too much power in their day, so we need to think about how to overcome that historical path dependence, so we can make new decisions that overcome the trajectory that is keeping us from making wiser decisions about global warming/ climate change now. I’m hoping to get more familiar with the history and science of water in the West in the course.

  56. Stephanie DiBetitto says:

    I think you did a fabulous job with this article and the associated maps. It’s so interesting to think about and I have to agree that even if J.W. Powell’s watershed boundaries took effect, as humans we would be in similar situations elsewhere. Water is security and power, and I believe that water storage projects would still be implemented for future planning. Anyway, great job and keep up the good work!

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