A recent announcement that the Department of Interior is planning a massive reorganization has received a bunch of attention.  While Secretary Zinke has done a number of dubious things in his short time at Interior, this one at least, having some origins based on the concepts of John Wesley Powell, initially made me pause to consider if it may have merit.  If you can stomach watching Zinke talk for over five minutes, the video from DOI explaining the move is here. Or you can read this, where I first read about the concept, via an article Outside Magazine:  “Ryan Zinke’s Watershed Plan Is 140 Years Too Late”  To summarize the background:

“The latest object of the interior secretary’s affection is John Wesley Powell. A Civil War veteran who lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, Powell is best known as a geologist and geographer who led expeditions in the American Southwest, including the first documented float down Grand Canyon. Those travels inspired Powell, in an 1878 report, to recommend the West be settled in a fashion that would organize the desiccated territory by watershed. Doing so, he argued, would make for a more collaborative and ecologically sound way of managing resources, especially in a region where the most precious resource is water. “

This basin map, seen below from an old NPR story about “The Vision of John Wesley Powell“, shows the “Map of the Arid Region of the United States showing drainage districts, 1890-91”, which is the impetus mentioned by Zinke, and explained per the article: “In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.”

While some see it as pure politics, and view it with skepticism, others acknowledge some merit. Per Outside: ““Intellectually, the idea of organizing more in terms of the landscape in the West—that works,” says John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “But the devil is in the details. The damage that could be done to relationships and how agencies do business, that doesn’t look like it’s been well thought out yet.”  There is mention of the complications of the current water system, where far away water is transported hundreds of miles to other locations, which perhaps makes basin boundaries obsolete, and is antithetical, in essence to Powell’s original notions, (thus the ‘too late’ tagline). As mentioned. ““For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains…hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place,” Donald Worster, a Powell biographer, told NPR in 2003. “So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

The Washington Post also weighed in, mentioning on January 10th the “Interior plans to move thousands of workers in the biggest reorganization in its history”, and some of the implications of “the largest reorganization in the department’s 168-year history, moving to shift tens of thousands of workers to new locations and change the way the federal government manages more than 500 million acres of land and water across the country.”  In short, the “…proposal would divide the United States into 13 regions and centralize authority for different parts of Interior within those boundaries. The regions would be defined by watersheds and geographic basins, rather than individual states and the current boundaries that now guide Interior’s operations”.

Skeptics are probably right to wonder if this is an effective change, but some of the criticism of it being hard to do, moving offices, costs, issues like splitting states into two zones sort of miss the point, if the goal is a broad basin-specific planning mechanism.  The concept that there’s a political agenda is obvious, and some of the talk of this being a covert way of downsizing government and eroding the mission are valid.  Other criticisms, such as removal of Bureau of Indian Affairs offices, as mentioned in the article are more troubling.  As quoted: “This proposal is concerning because it appears to eliminate the Navajo Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” said  Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “A change of this magnitude should only come after extensive, meaningful government-to-government consultation with the affected tribes.  On its face, this looks more like a dismantling than a reorganization.”

Environmental groups as well echo the idea that it may seem ok on the surface, but is at it’s root political.  As quoted: ““A regional approach to managing Interior might indeed make sense, but the jury is out on this reorganization,” Sharon Buccino, senior director for lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email. “Virtually everything Secretary Zinke has done to date has been to advance fossil fuel interests — above the stewardship of our public lands, preservation of wildlife and protection of clean air and water.””

It’s dubious whether this would happen, but there’s some intriguing notions it brings up, perhaps in a less divisive political climate, as to where this could actually be beneficial.  The Washington Post article linked to the overlay of current bureau configurations and the proposed idea of ‘Common Regions’, as mentioned.  The patchwork of overlaid jurisdictional boundaries would obviously be a change, but fundamentally there’s some wisdom (perhaps Powell’s wisdom) at work in thinking about this

Whether it goes anywhere is dubious, as it’s an interesting idea wrapped up in massive government reorganization that brings with it so much baggage as to sink it before it starts. As Outside concludes, “Perhaps it’s best to think of Zinke’s watershed-based West as a thought experiment.”   Or possibly, it’s a question of being too soon, and that a more thought-out approach could possibly be implemented over the course of the next decade to address concerns but keep it from just being that unrealized concept.


I’ve long been a proponent of the concept of transforming political boundaries more in line with hydrological ones, as the idea of connecting choices made with the impacts to watersheds, first presenting the concept in a presentation at the 2006 National ASLA Conference.  The genesis of the idea is the that these basins and watersheds are nested systems, with larger units encompassing many smaller elements, and in turn being encompassed by larger systems. The idea of neighborsheds (i.e. neighborhood watersheds) involve a small scale redrawing our local boundaries using subwatersheds instead of arbitrary street or orthagonal boundaries that we currently employ.  This provides an opportunity to reimagine our local places in alignment with nature, and also helps residents understand their place at a scale that is knowable.  The connection to local flows provides a context, and the nesting systems allow one to link thier actions to the larger whole.

There are some obvious organizational structures in place that adopt this nested, such as the idea of USGS Hydrologic Units (HU) that organize elements like the Watershed Boundaries used in the National Hydrography Database.  The map below shows the largest resolution, the regional scale, of which there are 21 in the United States, know by a system of codes, or HUCs.

Some info via a really good page on Wikipedia on Hydrological Codes, this scales down from the original 21 regional HUs, to 222 subregions, 370 basins, 2,200 subbasins, 22,000 watersheds and around 160,000 subwatersheds.   The range in scale is also interesting, with a Region averaging a size of approximately 177,560 square miles, a typical basin spanning 10,000 square miles, down to 220 square mile watersheds and 40 square mile subwatersheds.  The Pacific Northwest is HU-17 expands to grab most of the Columbia River basin flowing west from the Rocky Mountains (which also reaches far up into Canada but is not shown on this map).

This breakdown the the nested scales provides a nice summary of that breakdown.


The Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) structure in Washington is an extension of this idea as well, with the ability to delineate a watershed focus on conservation. An image of WRIA boundaries overlaid with county lines in Washington State is instructive as to the difference between political lines drawn.

These denote the smallest HU scale of subwatershed, which as we discussed are around 40 square miles each, which is still rather large, but at least somewhat more comprehensible than larger basins. The WRIAs for the Puget Sound show the very organic structure of basin-focused districts (which is also the final scale of the Hydrological Unit map showing Subwatersheds), with the only hard-line in this case being the Canadian border to the north.

An zoomed into the smaller scale around Seattle, the two districts include WRIA 8, the Lake Washington and the Cedar River Basin, which encompasses much of the City, and the WRIA 9, the Duwamish-Green River Basin which drains the south segment of the city.  While it may complicate things as a current city and a county boundaries and require some intergovernmental agreements from many parties, the ability to isolate hydrological areas makes planning for these watersheds in terms of impacts to ecosystems much easier.  In some sense these could be a reimagined county structure by these subwatersheds, which isn’t actually a bad idea, if only as a though experiment.

The nesting could continue infinitely and get down unit you get to the smallest drainage, which could encompass a few blocks in the city.  More on this to comes as I continue to expand on the neighborshed concept. While the politicized proposal from Interior seems doomed to failure, there is some merit to these types of proposals that transcend politics and assess the concept of watershed specific boundaries in terms of thinking outside the box, and inside the basin.

HEADER:  Image of Powell’s Arid Lands Map – via Outside Magazine



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