Watershed Management: If only people had GIS 200 years ago. (Not Guatemala related, maybe boring)

As part of my job here at the Water Resources unit of MARN, I assist in forming watershed management committees around the country. What becomes instantly obvious is the difficulty of forming these committees because rarely do political boundaries (ie country, city, town borders) follow the watershed. When meeting in Mayor’s offices with different community members in order to identify the main players in micro watersheds, it almost always happens that a number of communities are missing. And the reason is usually because they don’t get along well with the other community.

Anyway, the Water Wired blog highlighted a paper from 2002 titled ¨What if…the United States were based on Watersheds?¨ by Gerald Kaufman from the University of Delaware that contains a nice little map of how the US would be drawn up. Kaufman quotes Bill Sharpe here:

¨Every student of hydrology quickly learns that the management of water resources only makes sense when it’s done on a watershed basis. Governments, however, are organized by city, township and county boundaries, which are irrelevant to the natural scheme of things. Thus the challenge has been to make sensible water resources plans out of the nonsense of political subdivisions.¨

Kaufman’s logic is solid, although some of his comments are a little goofy. He laments that the founders didn’t have GIS. He mentions that Mason and Dixon were so close to the watershed boundary, but they lacked ¨sophisticated mapping and surveying skills,¨ and therefore missed the separation of the Delaware river and Chesapeake Bay watersheds by only ¨a couple dozen miles.¨

One place where watershed boundaries in the US do correspond is the West Virginia-Virginia border which was more or less by chance. I’m not familiar with either state’s water management, but would help to know if it is somehow way more efficient (I kind of doubt it, but for different reasons).

The idea of delineating geopolitical boundaries along watershed lines isn’t new. In 1878, John Powell, who was the head of the US Geological Survey was fired for pushing the idea too hard. Apparently in Switzerland they divided up the cantons this way. The US has addressed the problem by creating dozens of watershed management agencies throughout its history. But as the paper discusses, these have usually had a short lifespan and are often neglected as they rely on a large amount of interagency, interstate, and interjurisdictional cooperation.

Kaufman recognizes the impossibility of this vision. And really, as a counterfactual, I’m not sure how much this really teaches us. I guess it just shows that yes, watershed management is hard. And it might be even more so in Guatemala where a recent conflict has left many towns and villages untrusting of their neighbors (to say the least).

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