Watersheds know no political boundaries. Except for the borders of a few of the United States, this adage is true. Most watersheds include many state, county, and local governments and this “balkanization” is what makes watershed management so complex.
In 1878, recognizing that the link between watersheds and public policy was critical, John Wesley Powell, the great explorer of the Colorado River, proposed that political jurisdictions conform to watersheds in the west. For this progressive watershed management idea, Mr. Powell lost his job as the head of the U.S. Geological Survey (Powell, 1878).
Bill Sharpe in an August 1999 column in The Washington Post put it nicely when he wrote:
“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.”
Most of the United States were not delineated based on watershed boundaries but rather by lines based on compass headings and natural features such as rivers. The borders of many states such as Pennsylvania along the east-west Mason-Dixon Line or polygonal Colorado and Wyoming were surveyed along the linear lines of latitude and longitude. Other states such as New Jersey along its Hudson River boundary with New York or the Vermont/New Hampshire line along the Connecticut River share meandering borders along rivers and waterways. Only the borders of a hand full of states such as West Virginia-Virginia and Idaho-Montana were delineated along watershed lines.
Because watershed and government boundaries usually do not coincide, watershed managers face complex institutional and governance challenges. For example, management of water resources in the 13,000 square mile Delaware River Basin presents unique inefficiencies because each of its four states (DE, NJ, NY, and PA) and dozens of counties administers its own set of disparate water quality regulations, stormwater ordinances, and politics. A small tributary of the Brandywine is regulated as a cold water trout stream in Delaware whereas a few yards away across the border in Pennsylvania it is regulated as a warm water stream. Each of the four states issues a separate fishing license to fish in the waters of the basin. Every watershed like the Delaware River with more than one state or local jurisdiction faces similar complexities presented by the fragmented fiefdoms called governments.