What if these Drainage Districts had become the essential units of government?

Powell's water-based states, or How the West wasn't won

What if these Drainage Districts had become the essential units of government?

The prototypical American border is the straight line. Not a single US state lacks one (1). Wyoming and Colorado are perfect rectangles, and a dozen other states are bounded by enough straight borders to resemble boxes. These near-rectangles are prevalent west of the Mississippi where, in the worlds of the folk song, 'the states are square' (2).


That might not have been so if the US government had heeded the suggestions of John Wesley Powell, who in 1890 produced this Map of the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts. Powell argued for those districts to become the essential units of government, either as states or as watershed commonwealths.

Those borders might look pretty alien right now, and Powell's proposal far-fetched, but he was hardly operating from the lunatic fringe. John Wesley Powell [1834-1902] is a towering figure in the history of the exploration and management of the American West. As a restless young man of 22, Powell rowed down the Mississippi all the way from St. Anthony, Minnesota, to the sea. Despite losing an arm in the Civil War and gaining a  geology professorship afterward, he continued exploring, turning his attention to the American West.

One of his expeditions, in 1869, was the first documented passage of European Americans through the Grand Canyon. In 1881, Powell was appointed the second director of the US Geological Survey. He also directed the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. In recognition of his service to the nation, Powell was buried at Arlington (after his death, presumably), and a monument in his honour erected at the Grand Canyon. Both the USGS headquarters and one of the organisation's highest awards were named after him.

The explorer's name was also bestowed on the second-largest man-made reservoir in the US, on the Colorado River straddling Utah and Arizona. This is deeply ironic, since large-scale reservoirs like Lake Powell were exactly what he was arguing against in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States.

Powell was convinced that only a small fraction of the American West was suitable for agriculture (3). His Report proposed irrigation systems fed by a multitude of small dams (instead of the few huge ones in operation today) and state borders based on watershed areas. The bulk of the arid regions should be reserved for conservation and low-intensity grazing.

But other interests were at work; the railway companies lobbied for large-scale settlement and agricultural development. Counter-expertise for Powell's point of view was provided by professor Cyrus Thomas, who claimed that 'rain follows the plough'. That theory was thoroughly disproved by the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s, which caused tremendous hardship among the pioneers attracted to farm the arid regions, and led many of them to migrate even further West.

In light of that disaster, Powell's warning at an irrigation congress in 1883 seems particularly prescient: "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." Powell must have been frustrated by the contrast between the way his achievements were lauded, and his warnings ignored.

Had his water-based recommendations been followed, the states out West would have looked very different - the opposite of square. Powell foresaw that irrigation issues would be the principal bone of contention in the West. He therefore proposed that drainage districts, as shown on this map (4), should be the fundamental unit of government in the West.

If these districts did not themselves become states, then they should at least be organised as inter-state commonwealths, the authority of which over irrigation and agriculture would trump that of the states. What would this aquacratic system have implied? Powell's water-based states would have been contained by the eastern and western boundaries of the arid region itself. This would leave a much smaller area for the Pacific states. These would be reduced to a narrow coastal band, except for the North-West, where the non-arid region lurches inland, and southern California, which would be included in the arid region almost up to San Francisco.

For reasons unknown, Powell leaves unclaimed a strip of land on the inside of the eastern border of the arid zone. The drainage districts themselves are each shaded in lighter and darker hues, implying further administrative subdivisions. The shading makes a total count of the districts a bit tricky - I count 22 or 23. Some of the drainage districts are quite small, like the light brown one in the south of New Mexico, or the dark brown one surrounding the Salt Lake in Utah. Others are huge, like the orange one bordering the Salt Lake district to the south-west, which reaches across southern Nevada and southern California all the way down to the Mexican border.

Unfortunately, Powell neglected to provide names for his proposed states/commonwealths. It would have been fun to toy around with a batch of vaguely familiar and totally weird state names, like the ones proposed by Thomas Jefferson for the Northwest Territory (5). But like Jefferson's states, the units proposed by Powell seem, well, the wrong shape. From a purely cartophile point of view, they don't work as well as the states that did eventually make the cut. Ironically, they lack the normality of the present batch of straight-border states. Or is that just the force of habit talking?

Many thanks to Matthew Frank for bringing this map to my attention. He discusses it here on his blog Aqueous Advisors. Click here for a larger version. Powell's water-based borders bring to mind professor C. Etzel Pearcy's more recent proposal for 'natural' state borders (6).

Strange Maps #489 

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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(1) OK, you got me. Hawaii doesn't have one.

(2) "Oh, I will go up and down the country and back and forth across the country. I will go out West where the states are square. I will go to Boise and Helena, Albuquerque and the two Dakotas and all the unknown places. Say brother, have you heard the roar of the fast express? Have you seen starlight on the rails?" (Utah Phillips [1935-2008], Starlight on the Rails. Phillips, a troubadour in the mould of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, ran for US president in 1976 for the Do-Nothing Party).

(3) about 2%, mainly near natural water sources.

(4) presented together with his Report to the US House of Representatives Committee on Irrigation.

(5) Would you like to live in Polypotamia? See #284.

(6) Only 38 states in total, though. See #5. 

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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