Drawing Lines is Hard and We Need to Be More Decisive About It  

By Ian Baltutis

(John W Powell’s 1890 proposal to the US Congress about redrawing western state boundaries to match watershed districts as a method for effectively managing the limited water supply)

Having grown up in the Midwest, I remember fondly how easy it seemed to fill in the names of some states and not others on elementary school geography assignments. The clean geometric lines of the western states always made logical sense in my mind. However, those strange curvy, complex state boundaries in the east were problematic, and I can’t even count how many times I mixed up Vermont and New Hampshire. It took living in southern Vermont for a year to finally get it right. Despite my confusion, those early cartographers drawing lines that followed the natural geologic features of rivers and mountain ranges may have been on to something.

I had the honor of serving as Mayor of Burlington, North Carolina for six years. Public service exposes one to all sorts of unique community stories, anecdotes, and questions. But it also allows for unique opportunities to explain the weirdness that is government to people. Boundaries were one of those strange concepts. On a map, the line between one city and another is clear, but driving or walking across that same delineation in person often provides no indication that you have left one jurisdiction for another. Short of the occasional rusty city limits sign, most people have no clue where one community ends and another begins.

Zoom out on a map a little further and you’ll see state boundaries. In your personal travel, you may have noticed that these are usually marked slightly more obvious, with a drastic change in pavement quality as you’re driving a road. If you take a road trip through some of those New England states whose borders tormented me in grade school, you may stumble upon an old wooden covered bridge over that border defining river. Our geometric western states may have featured more organic borders if the US Senate had decisively followed the advice of John Wesley Powell. On January 17, 1890, Powell proposed to the United States Senate that western state boundaries should be based on an important hydrologic feature, watersheds. Following years of harrowing exploration, braving whitewater rapids across the west, Powell had quantified how arid the west truly was.

He realized that the lack of water would be a major hindrance to the desires of manifest destiny enthusiasts preaching that the “rain follows the plow” as farmers pushed west. Powell hypothesized that it would only be a matter of time before agricultural expansion strained the limited water supply of the western region. He had the foresight, inspired by Stephen Long and William Gilpin years earlier that the only way to tame the planes was to harness the watersheds of the west. Long had explored the Missouri and Platte rivers as he traveled through what he termed, “The Great American Desert.” Two decades later, Gilpin would draft the first hydrographic maps showing the impact of rain and lack thereof in the west. Combining their maps and logs with his data, Powell determined that the scarce water resources of each watershed would need strategic management best carried out by unified state governance. It was from this that Powell boldly proposed his solution to mapping the west with a multi-color map of new states with boundaries following the peaks and valleys of the watersheds. Each state would control its own watershed and thus its destiny.

Powell warned that dividing these scarce resources among competing state governments would leave them open for exploitation and mismanagement. If you’ve read any of the latest headlines about water shortages today, then you know how well this proposal was received by the Senate. The bold delineation that Powell called for did not convince the Senate leaders in 1890. Bending to the lobbying of western territorial leaders and the rapid pace of expansion, the Senate opted to continue the process of drawing straight lines on maps and synthesizing their ideal western state pattern. Today, we are left with the finger pointing and blame transfer of leaders who did not create the problem and want no part in having to ask their populous to give up their quality of life in the name of water conservation.

We see this pattern time and time again in the history of planning. For anyone who has visited our nation’s capital, another case study is hurtling beneath their feet. The DC Metro subway line was conceived as a multijurisdictional solution to the growing transportation demands of the area. As the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was formed and plans came together for the first routes, the designers got caught up in the mechanics of expansion and glossed over the key detail of taxation responsibilities. With no clear definition of taxing authority, the system administrators were left to return hat-in-hand each year to the multiple individual government councils of the region asking for their share of the funding to sustain and grow the system. If a funding request was granted, it usually came with new requirements for system expansion to meet the demands of that community. Growth and expansion overshadowed systemic issues. Growing ridership numbers were equated as success, while safety incidents and system delays piled up. Over the years those inconsistent funding payments failed to meet the maintenance needs and the system fell into disrepair and ultimately exacted its toll on human lives. Again, the fault was not bestowed upon the governing agencies that had to conceive the system, but on the Metro administrators tasked with managing this unmanageable feat.

As planners, we regularly tackle what many might consider lofty and complex problems. It is our responsibility to work through the difficult questions and interdependencies of these societal challenges. When we avoid the hard choices of putting pen to paper and rigorously defining jurisdictions and scope of responsibility, we miss the opportunity to build more resilient and lasting foundations for our communities. When we shy away from making timely and difficult decisions, we pass along a burden to future generations. As planners, it can be easy to get lost in the shiny details of the design, becoming fixated on growth, but without a strong foundation, all designs will crumble and faulter. What if those Senate leaders had taken Powell’s warning to heart? Would we still be talking about towing arctic icebergs to California to harvest for freshwater? Would visitors to our Nation’s capital still be riding on some of the oldest and least dependable metro trains if leaders had sorted the taxation plan from WMATA’s onset?  As a planner, you are faced with those difficult decisions, will you pause and call for a decision, or float with the current of popular sentiment?


Ian Baltutis is an inventor, serial entrepreneur, planner, and Master’s student at UNC DCRP. After founding Burlington Beer Works, the first co-operatively owned brewery and restaurant in NC he made the jump into public service when he was elected Mayor of the City of Burlington, NC in 2015. He served 3 terms leading the launch and expansion of the city’s Link Transit bus system, construction of a greenway network, and modernization of planning, zoning, and development ordinances. He is passionate about place-making, walkable communities, and trains. He loves riding trains and visiting railroad museums all around the world.


Edited by Abigail Cover

Featured Image: Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Districts. Photo Credit: Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey