A map of what the state boundaries in the U.S. might have beenS

In the nineteenth century, a geologist named John Wesley Powell suggested that the United States should draw state lines based on watersheds. It would prevent conflicts over water, and make agricultural projects more successful. Now, a land use planner has created a map that matches Powell's vision.

It's a different world. This is a great way to think about maps in general, because it reveals how a society focused on resource allocation looks fundamentally different from one created around what Powell considered "arbitrary" political boundaries.

John Lavey, who created the map, writes on Community Builders:

What if the Western states were formed around watershed as Powell envisioned? What would that look like and could we speculate on what that might mean for the functioning of modern communities? And since we're going down that road, let's ask another what if: What if all of the American states were based around principal watershed, from coast to coast – something even Powell didn't consider.

Armed with an elementary understanding of GIS and various shapefiles, I set out to create such a map. Some notes on the map itself: It doesn't look like Powell's, exactly. Since I decided to take a look at the whole of a country rather than just the arid parts, which includes U.S. possessions on the east coast, boundaries will differ. On top of that, I had access to data that Powell did not; namely Hydrologic Unit Code – HUC – shapefiles, which depict watersheds from their largest catchment down to very small, creek-level, areas. My priorities for creating this map were to: end up with 50 states; keep larger watersheds intact; try to locate watershed states in roughly the same geography as present-day states; maintain national borders; and try to keep state capitals in each state.

I wonder if this might be a glimpse of our future efforts to create communities on Earth. As we become more aware of how important natural resources like water and food are to wealth, political lines may have to be redrawn. Cities will be built in range of water resources, which could make them more sustainable in the long run — there will be less need to go far afield for hydroelectric power, and for water as both a coolant and (of course) something humans and other life forms need to live.

Read the rest of Laver's fascinating essay, and see more of his images, on Community Builders (spotted on Next City)