A New Map Of The U.S., Created From Where We Get Our Water

Instead of fighting over water, what if each state’s boundaries let it get water from one source? Check out the Watershed States of America.


This map shows what America would look like if it followed its watersheds. It’s an America designed to use water more efficiently, and reduce state conflicts over water. Think state conflicts over water aren’t a big deal? Then you don’t know that Georgia, Florida, and Alabama are engaged in a massive battle over their water sources. There’s a similar situation in the dry Southwest. Will the states go to war? Almost certainly not–but there must be a better solution.


Made by John Lavey, a land use planner at the Sonoran Institute, the map is inspired by an idea from 19th-century adventurer and geologist John Wesley Powell. In 1879, Powell proposed that “as the Western states were brought into the union they be formed around watersheds, rather than arbitrary political boundaries.” Powell’s map of Western “watershed states” is very different than what we have today.

Unfortunately, back then, the railway lobby wouldn’t have it:

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.

Lavey’s map imagines Powell’s idea across the whole of America. He took Hydrologic Unit Codes–which detail the largest catchments to the small creeks–then gerrymandered state boundaries, keeping capitals and national borders. Lavey says if America had implemented Powell’s concept, it would have forced “people to use water efficiently,” and led to both better transport networks and management of land and wildlife.

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.

Without railways, intensive agriculture and mass urbanization, the West wouldn’t be the West it is today. That was made possible by bending the water supply. Still, it’s interesting to wonder if states would be less at each other’s throats if they all lived within their natural water limits.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.