Thinking like a Watershed

By Char Miller

If we had been thinking like a watershed, how differently we would have arranged political lines in the west, creating water communities instead of the ramshackle arrangements that exist.

What makes local, local? We know what "county" or "state" or "nation" are, by the precise boundaries that separate these entities from one another; 'international' is just as bounded. But "local" lacks any such geographical demarcation. It is not a city or town (though it could be); it is more a cultural assumption about a place, an emotional tie, a perspective--boundless.

Yet determining where "local" is, and what it means, is critical to understanding its significance in contemporary American environmental discourse. This is a vital exercise in large part because the term 'local' has become a mantra of sorts, regularly chanted at formal conferences and informal gatherings whose subject is the future of the human presence on Earth. It has become the locus of activism, the locale of hope.

Credit climate change, that most global of forces, with offering us the opportunity to rebuild our communities and our democracy from the ground up.

But which ground is the preferred one? How are we to define what is local and thus identify the sustaining origin of a steadier life on what activist Bill McKibben calls a tough new planet? The answer, for those of us living in the American west, may lie not in new ideas of the future but an older concept dating from the mid-19th-century.

That's when John Wesley Powell, second head of the U.S. Geological Survey (now US Geological Service), led the now-legendary expedition down the Colorado River, rafting its rapids over the spring and summer of 1869. His voyage and subsequent explorations of the dry regions of the interior west led Powell to argue that a new political structure was necessary if Americans intended to live in terrain of such scant precipitation. As he floated past the rough and rocky landforms, which we can more-easily envision while flying across the continent, Powell identified water's definitive power. "In a group of mountains a small river has its source," he noted in his landmark Report on the Lands in the Arid Region of the United States (1876). "A dozen or a score of creeks unite to form the trunk. The creeks higher up divide into brooks. All these streams combined form the drainage system of the hydrographic basin, a unit of country well defined in nature, for it is bounded above and on each side by heights of land that rise as crests to part the waters. Thus hydraulic basin is segregated by hydraulic basin by nature herself, and the landmarks are practically perpetual."

This physical structure had decided political implications, Powell believed: the only settlement pattern that made sense in the west was one framed inside the region's many watersheds. Within their boundaries, land-ownership patterns, and political and social systems, should be slotted.

Because each such district would become "a commonwealth by itself," Powell declared, out of this would emerge "a body of interdependent and unified interests and values, all collected in one hydraulic basin, and all segregated by well-defined boundary lines from the rest of the world." United by "common interests, common rights, and common duties," the residents "would work together for common purposes." Should the "entire arid region be organized into natural hydrographic districts," its environmental constraints would compel the creation of a more direct democracy, a more virtuous public space.

No one listened to Powell. But that's not the point. More to the point is that he was correct in his supposition that watershed commonwealths--as opposed to the artificial imposition of state borders, county lines, and city limits--would have been a saner way to delineate communal life in this land of little rain. His ideal is even more relevant now, given the intense pressures bearing down on the American west, portions of which have been suffering from historic droughts since 2010; this dryness, as climate models reveal, will define much of the 21st-century, too.

Detail of the Los Angeles River Watershed

This will have a significant impact on the U.S. west, which for the last century has been building water-distribution systems that have cost billions of dollars to construct and maintain, systems that consume massive amounts of energy to move water across valley and desert, and up and down mountains (California's State Water Project, or instance, is the largest consumer of energy in the state: every acre-foot of water lifted over the Tehachapi Mountains and distributed across Southern California burns upwards of 3000 kilowatt-hours of electricity) This complex infrastructure, developed for inter-basin transfers of white gold, may no longer function as it once did. The key dilemma is whether those basins--and more precisely the high country that rings them, from the Rockies and Wasatch to the Sierra--will continue to receive the levels of precipitation that once made them skiers' heavens and icy reservoirs for the communities below.

The latest IPCC data suggests otherwise, and as the already arid portions of the west dry up, the region’s mega cities like Los Angeles will be in considerable trouble (and places like El Paso and Albuquerque already are). No wonder, then, that the USGS (Powell's old outfit) has been evaluating local groundwater supplies in Southern California, seeking ways to protect these once-ignored resources. Its efforts are a reminder that the aquifers underlying central and western sections of the city once offered plenteous amounts of water (and today still supply 30-40% of the daily take).

Developing strategies to replenishing these underground resources, like Friends of the LA River’s three-decade-long effort to get us imagine the Los Angeles River as a river, are parts of a larger transformation. Where once fiefdoms dominated the region's water politics, where exclusive preserves deliberately ignored hydraulic realities, these artificial barriers appear to be breaking down. Practitioners and activists are now working across these demarcations, cooperating with one-time competitors, adopting each other's best practices. Unfazed by the lack of clear state policy prescriptions or federal mandates, they are collaborating upstream and down, between basins, and across state borders.

This collaboration has important implications, for seeing ourselves as inhabitants of watersheds and river basins is an essential step toward recognizing that these topographical features are the building blocks—metaphorical and real--of life on this climate-changed Earth.

And because they are also our home ground, there is nothing more local.

© Char Miller, 2014