Down Home: Thinking Locally Means Thinking Like a Watershed


What makes local, local? We know what "county" or "state" or "nation" is, 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.

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So it was at Brave New Planet: Imagining Ecological Communities, a remarkable gathering of hundreds of activists and organizers, theologians, academics, and citizens held this past weekend in Claremont. Although its plenary sessions and breakout groups constituted a sprawling landscape, reflective of the Southern California in which it was held; and although its presenters and participants came from a variety of faith-based communities, political perspectives, social classes and types, and environmental convictions, they had this in common: local is the antidote for all that ails us.

Bill McKibben, whose work was the organizing principle of the confab, spoke eloquently of the failures of top-down solutions to the dilemmas that climate change has produced. Oberlin College's David Orr seconded that critique, and like McKibben advocated a grassroots response as the only viable source of action left to us. Joining the chorus were those participating in dialogs focused on energy and other resources; urban farming; business practices, economic development, and financial systems; and the remaking of American education. Chiming in as well were those who drew on sacred texts from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and an array of other spiritual sources to guide us along a more secure path in this disrupted world.

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

But which ground is the preferred one? How to define what is local and thus the sustaining origin of a steadier life on what 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, first head of the U.S. Geological Survey, led an 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. Noting from the rough and rocky landforms what we can more-easily envision while jetting across the continent, he 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."

Portrait of John Wesley Powell at the National Portrait Gallery

This physical form had decided political implications, he 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 structures, should be slotted.

Because each such district would become "a commonwealth by itself," Powell declared, out of this would emerge a "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, 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 and county lines--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; this dryness, as climate models reveal, will define much of the 21st-century, too.

Detail of the Los Angeles River Watershed

What does this mean for the west, which for the last century has been building water-distribution systems that cost billions of dollars to construct and maintain; one that consumes 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 has. 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.

The data suggests otherwise. If that drier future pans out, then the west's mega cities like Los Angeles will be in considerable trouble (and places like El Paso and Albuquerque already are). No wonder, then, that USGS (Powell's old outfit) has been evaluating local groundwater supplies in Southern California, 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). Protecting and replenishing these underground resources, like FOLAR's three-decade-long effort to get us imagine the Los Angeles River as a river, are parts of a whole. Seeing ourselves as inhabitants of watersheds is an essential step toward recognizing that these topographical features are the building blocks--as constraint and opportunity; metaphorical and real--of this climate-changed Earth.

Because they're our home ground, there's nothing more local.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user Aquafornia. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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