From: Catherine Manner, University of Delaware, class of 2015
Published December 6, 2013 02:56 PM

COLLEGIATE CORNER: State boundaries based on watersheds

In 1872, John Wesley Powell led an expedition down the Colorado River to explore unknown canyons.  In his report he spoke about potential for water resources development and stated that irrigation would be the key factor to settlement of the western U.S.  He promoted the idea that the western state boundaries should be made around watersheds, preventing interstate water arguments. 



Today, western state borders are all mostly arbitrary political boundaries.  The shapes of the states mostly resemble boxes but if the U.S. government had gone with Powell’s suggestion state borders would look very different.  Most U.S. borders were drawn wherever it was most convenient.  But if borders had been drawn based upon watershed boundaries instead then every state would have its own river or drainage area, therefore they would not have to share with other states.  The western U.S. is prone to droughts, the southwest being mostly desert area.  As people migrated west, potential for water conflict was ignored.  But as more people moved west, more people were using water for agriculture and irrigation.  Throughout the years, conflicts over water have become increasingly prevalent.

Many State-to-state conflicts would have been avoided if land had been divided up by watersheds. For example, the Colorado River is shared by seven U.S. states causing conflict because each state wants the water for its own use, trying to divert water from the Colorado River for themselves.  However, changing borders now would be a challenge.  There are many issues with changing the borders, for example it would disrupt the Electoral College.  If states could compromise on changing their borders numerous water disputes could be avoided and urban growth would be limited because water from another watershed could not be used or transport from neighboring watersheds.  Because watersheds embody different ecosystems, climates, and geographies, state boundaries around watersheds would also help wildlife management with regional strategies. There would be no need for agreements with other states because each state would have its own water source.

Dividing western U.S. land by watersheds instead of political boundaries would cut down on "state-to-state water wars" which are likely to increase as water supplies become scarcer.  If every state had a specified watershed as their supply of water, states could better delegate where water goes and what the type of infrastructure would be located in that area.

Catherine Manner is an Environmental Science major with a concentration in Hydrology at the University of Delaware, class of 2015.

Colorado River image via Shutterstock.

This story is part of the Collegiate Corner, a section of ENN dedicated to student work. All work in this column is the product of the student in its entirely. If you have questions about the Collegiate Corner or would like to submit please contact:

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