Reimagining American political organization through watersheds

All of the major watersheds in the contagious United States. Each of these can be further divided into smaller watersheds know Hydrologic Cataloging Units. Photo courtesy of USGS.
Jonathan Logan, S&E Editor

Perhaps one of the great tragedies of our time is a lack of imagination in how we politically organize ourselves. Modern nation-states are delineated by hard and fast borders, lines in the sand. The current world map, and this is true at local levels as well, is drawn based on compass readings and imagined, logical borders. In the United States, watersheds represent a whole new way of thinking about lines drawn on maps, and, perhaps, borders themselves. A watershed is a geographical area that drains all surface and groundwater into a common body of water (this could be as small as a river or as large as an ocean).

Governments are organized by cities, townships, states and regions. Through civic engagement within these governments, a certain level of socialization has led people to believe that this is the natural way of thinking about geographical and political organization. There are as many as 25 state borders created by rivers in the contiguous U.S. Scholars of hydrology and watershed management have engaged in a simple thought experiment: what if state boundaries were demarcated based on the 18 watersheds that fall within the lower 48? In other words, “one state, one watershed.” Obviously, the course of national history and politics would be entirely different, and it is unreasonable to now imagine switching to this system. However, it is not unreasonable to look at the United States’ gerrymandered congressional districts and wonder how that might be different.

Watersheds are not discrete units. Just as a country can be broken into states and states into counties, so too can watersheds be broken into smaller watersheds. For example, the Great Lakes watershed just to the north of Wooster drains dozens of rivers into Lake Erie, each of which drain smaller rivers and streams. The feasibility of designating each natural watershed a county is less appealing given that they vary greatly in size, but most are not much larger or smaller than current congressional districts. The Valais Canton’s borders in Switzerland are mapped based solely on the Rhone River watershed.

State governments in the U.S. divvy up watersheds in a more convenient and congruent manner that nature might. Each state maps what are called Hydrologic Cataloging Units (HUCs) within their political boundaries. HUCs become progressively smaller from HUC-8 maps to HUC-12 maps, much in the same way precincts and wards are smaller political units that determine people’s polling locations. Comparing congressional district maps to watershed maps and HUC maps to precinct maps paints a persuasive picture that perhaps we could incorporate the natural environment into the political structure of the country. Furthermore, problems such as gerrymandering and the redrawing of district maps could be eliminated by incorporating these naturally occurring boundaries.

Observing and respecting natural borders could change the way in which not only politically organize, but also the way in which we engage with one another. Given the current state of American politics, many scholars have stated that there will have to be a cataclysmic event before our political system changes. When or if this change comes, we ought to be prepared to consider novel ways in which we interact with geography and the natural world.

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