Watershed Map: How the West Was Drawn

What if the U.S. had based Western state boundaries on watersheds? One land use planner decided to look into the question and started a movement.

By Richard Banks

Click the image to download a full-size map.

Click the image to download a full-size map.

Among his many adventures, John Wesley Powell led an expedition 1,000 miles on the then-uncharted Green and Colorado rivers. He did it in 1869 with one arm—the other having been lost due to an injury sustained in the U.S. Civil War—nine other men and four wooden boats ill-suited for the rivers’ treacherous white water.

Because of Powell’s careful study and the notes he was able to save, the 99-day journey helped fill in the last blank spot on the map of the continental U.S. It also led to what may have been the most complete geologic study of its day, and a proposal that could’ve completely changed the layout and water usage of the Western U.S.

At the heart of the proposal was a map, created by Powell in 1879, that drew boundaries for Western states based on watersheds. The idea and its author eventually lost out to interests pushing for quick settlement of the West and state lines backed by the railroads. Yet, the map lives on.

It was recently recreated by John Lavey, a land-use planner with the Sonoran Institute, who redrew the map, calling it the “United Watershed States of America.” It shows not just Western states—slightly recalibrated with hydrologic data unavailable in Powell’s time—but also boundaries of Eastern states based on the watershed idea.

Super-America: The Canadian-U.S. watershed map

Super-America: The Canadian-U.S. watershed map

Noting he’s not the first to revisit Powell’s map, Lavey says he approached the project asking the question, “What if?” As he says, “I touch mostly on ‘Here’s kind of what it would look like.’ And then I delve a little bit into ‘What might that mean practically?’”

Based on Powell’s boundaries, Lavey says, “You might think about [the states] as sort of high-octane conservation districts.” Given that, Lavey believes “the map could be much more aligned with agricultural interests … That was why he was proposing that these states be formed, [to] use the water responsibly within these areas, and let’s do it in a way that facilitates agriculture. Powell’s whole idea rested on the idea of local control.”

Interest in the map and its focus on water conservation, says Lavey, has been mainly concentrated in the Western U.S., much of which has been ravaged by a multi-year drought. Yet, queries on the topic have come from around the world, including Europe and Asia, where individuals and organizations have asked if the mapping technique can be replicated there. “Someone even drew a [similar] map for Canada,” Lavey says.

“This isn’t something I’m advocating for,” continues Lavey about redrawing state boundaries. Yet, he says, “I like the idea of having a discussion around ‘What might that mean, and what might those implications be?’”