The Washington Post

Map: The United States of Watersheds

When American settlers moved westward in the 19th century, they went in search of precious gold, furs and land. But today, as the West booms, there’s another limited commodity that states need to carefully ration: Water.

John Wesley Powell saw this coming. The 19th century geologist and explorer, who navigated the Colorado River in 1869 and 1872, realized that the limited water in the arid West would eventually lead to conflict between the states. Therefore, he suggested the boundaries of Western states be determined by watersheds — the topographical basins that funnel surface water to a single exit point.

Why use watersheds to draw boundaries, instead of the sometimes-arbitrary, sometimes-geographical boundaries for states? Water usage, especially along the Colorado River, is the subject of innumerable state vs. state lawsuits, strict rationing and increasing conflict between urban areas and agricultural industries. Sorting states by watersheds would force the individual states to make their own decisions balancing water usage, rather than fighting among themselves. And those states would be able to use water within their own boundaries, rather than shipping water tens, even hundreds of miles away.

John Lavey thought that was a pretty good idea. So Lavey, a land use planner at the Sonoran Institute in Bozeman, Mont., set about to recreate Powell’s vision — but this time, instead of stopping in the West, he crossed the Rocky Mountains. Sticking with a maximum of 50 states, here are the boundaries Lavey drew, dictated by North American watersheds:

Source: Community Builders blog
Source: Community Builders blog

Some major differences with our map today: Missoula would fall in Idaho, not Montana. Las Vegas has water patterns in common with Utah and Arizona, but not Reno and Tahoe. Denver fits better with most of Kansas than with Colorado communities west of the Rockies. Almost all of Ohio, aside from the Great Lakes region, has water interests in common with Kentucky and West Virginia. And New York City gets lumped in with northern New Jersey, thanks to the mighty Hudson River.

Lavey says drawing these borders would have a few positive consequences. Transportation hubs tend to be in low spots in watersheds — we build our roads to “follow rivers, not ridges,” Lavey writes. “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,” he writes.

And each watershed’s ecosystem is unique. If a state’s boundaries follow the watershed, they would be able to streamline land and wildlife management.

We doubt states will be redrawing their maps any time soon, but it’s an interesting thought experiment: Plenty of state borders are formed by seemingly arbitrary state lines. What if we had let geography and terrain define our boundaries?

Here’s another version of Lavey’s new United States:


Source: Community Builders blog. Click for larger image.
Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The New Hampshire primary is Tuesday. Get caught up on the race.
New Hampshire primary: What to expect
New Hampshire will hold a traditional primary just eight days after the Iowa caucuses. Polling in the Granite state has historically been volatile in the final weeks before the primary. After the Iowa caucuses, many New Hampshire voters cement their opinions.
The Post's Ed O'Keefe says ...
Something has clicked for Bush in New Hampshire in the past few days. What has transpired by no means guarantees him a top-tier finish in Tuesday’s Republican primary here, but the crowds turning out to see him are bigger, his delivery on the stump is crisper and some of his key rivals have stumbled. At the least, the developments have mostly silenced talk of a hasty exit and skittish donors.
The feminist appeal may not be working for Clinton
In New Hampshire, Sen. Bernie Sanders is beating Clinton among women by eight percentage points, according to a new CNN-WMUR survey. This represents a big shift from the results last week in the Iowa caucuses, where Clinton won women by 11 points.
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the next state to vote, but Marco Rubio has recently seen a jump in his support, according to polls.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont. She left the state Sunday to go to Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water of the poor, heavily black, rust-belt city. 
55% 40%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.