The New Arid Regions of the United States

17. It is hard not to recognize that the mega-project of the border wall and related levees recall, in tonnage of poured concrete, recalls the monumentality of the Hoover Dam. Both assert a benefit to the nation’s economy by redirecting national resources to all. Hoover, trained as a surveyor and mining engineer, convened commissioners of western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, in Santa Fe as Secretary of Commerce, crafting the unmitigated benefit of the first interstate compact to allocate the river’s waters that set the basis for the massive project of water diversion and power generation tied to what would be the Hoover Dam.

The precedent of Hooverizing water, to use a later term coined for rationing of food, re-engineered a redistributing rainfall across the American West without Mexico, removed from the actual drainage basins–and only allotted water from the river that once flowed across its territory a separate treaty of 1944. Yet was the construction of the Compact also a basis for increasing ignorance of water-management in the nation, and indeed minimizing the priority of sustainability in the west? The massive project of water diversion and generation of power that may wear out its own use in an age of extreme warming, as we await, paralyzed before visualizations of climate change and aridity for a corner to be lifted on the longstanding geography of ignorance of the extent of parching of western states–or the selective amnesia of the past. Novelist Thomas Pynchon punctured the security of reason, by suggesting we would do well to take stock of how ignorance as having its own contours, scope, and textures: far from being amorphous, Pynchon argues, ignorance has its own map that demands to be appreciated, as well as a logic of which we are too content to remain unaware, so focussed or preoccupied are we on maps’ own truth claims. Looking bak to Powell’s watershed map, we might take stock of our own ignorance in persisting with the schema of redirection of water Hoover helped orchestrate, as a placing mask of ignorance over longstanding problems of water scarcity that gained it own logic. For the plans for water diversion have effectively black-boxed water scarcity across six states.

The massive irrigation projects encouraged by what became the Bureau of Land Management reconfigured the Arid Region once mapped with care by John Wesley Powell by seven distinct chroma in 1878 as a land of abundance: if Powell asked we focus on the scarcity of drainage basins, his map maps our ignorance of any similar care. As a sustained lack of rainfall and intense soil aridity raise questions of the return of the very “Arid Region” Powell did his best to place on the front burner of national priorities, we might try to take stock of a stunning absence of attention to increased aridity suggests in the interstate compact intensified escalating effects of global warming but raises questions of how deeply the contours of ignorance grew. Even as many Americans took note of the urgency of a national emergency on the southwestern border, declared by the forty-fifth President, they have white-washed national emergency before a lack of western water supplies. As red flags and purple flags of emergencies grew alarmingly destructive fires across once-forested west and the northwest, of increased violence hard to contain and of such violence to destroy whole towns, we took water for granted. The ignorance of the longstanding declines in the supply of water from the river from the early 1980s were met by a sustained rise in its use–until recent rarely recognizing rights of native tribes who live in the basin to river flow–about 20%-25%.

Rediscovery #: 00475 Job A1 08-131 Transparencies-1

Unprecedented extremes of intense sustained drought may trigger national emergencies whose scope we have not developed or even considered as clear scenarios. This summer, the intensity of aridity across western states may compel the Bureau of Land Reclamation to reduce the customary diversion of water to farmlands, formerly fertile regions, redrawing of the allotment of water first devised when the Hoover Dam was built. It is poignant that the decline of the massive enclosed reservoir Lake Mead has declined more precipitously and continuously than ever in the past, collecting far less waters from the Upper and Lower watersheds than it has ever in the past–as more water has run straight into the parched grounds. As a result, it may well be that we see an expanse of what John Wesley Powell had identified as an “Arid Region” far beyond even its past boundaries, in an era when the plains are far more filled with settlement and farms than Powell ever imagined might be possible in a region where such limited rainfall nourished the soil for it to host an utterly different range of plant life, in prairies that were mistakenly long thought to be so distinct and so altered that they were entirely unsuitable for agriculture, in areas of the plains that are washed by brine or afflicted by runoff, posing pressing questions of how individual farmers could utilize lands west of the hundredth meridians without irrigation–or how its settlement proceed without irrigation projects.

While providing water was linked to the settlement of the arid and sparsely populated territories in the west, the Bureau of Reclamation founded in 1902 with hopes to “make the desert bloom” across thirteen states and three territories by reservoirs and canals. The charge of the Reclamation Service grew out of the premium placed by Theodore Roosevelt to engineer massive works of water storage to “regulate and conserve the waters of the arid region,” making streams and rivers useful to the nation, as he asserted in his first State of the Union, to properly supply the region Powell had so elegantly mapped; irrigation became a project of government for exploiting natural resources, The Bureau of Reclamation Service that would preside over the construction of the Hoover Dam began to dam sections of the Colorado River from 1904., and soon gained electrification of rural ares in its charge. When the large-scale project of the Hoover Dam that was built 1931-35 in the midst of the Great Depression, with the logic that “it is water, not land, which measures production,” and stimulus funds were poured into the project after the war, to prevent a widely feared post-war unemployment surge by developing land, water, and energy to guarantee the expansion of. industry and agriculture alike, redirecting water across the contours and logic of a parched geography of Basin and Range, east of the Sierras, removing dependence of homesteaders, farmers, and settlers from a geography of river basins and drainage basins.

Lake Mead, 2018

18. Global warming has so reduced precipitation to dry out forest landscapes and indeed the water held in the ground: but our own water supplies, long taken for granted as part of the engineering of the west, are now in danger from the drastically reduced snowpack and a terrifying decrease of groundwater that may well destabilize the forest floor closer to the sea. But the man-made infrastructure that set a transformative basis for water supplies across the west is in danger of being challenged.

The massive drought over the past has begun to drain the great national reservoir of Lake Mead, potentially triggering the shut-off of a supply of water that generated enough electricity for much of the west, and diverted water in an enabling lifeline for farmlands in four states, ensuring the flow of water to a sprawling network of over 25 million, that itself boosted the viability of westward expansion of the nation.

We are all too often rendered passive witnesses of the processes of climate change. If western aridity has already shrunk the size of the dammed waters of Lake Mead from May 2000-2003, NASA Earth Observation imagery showed, as a result of precipitously declining snowpack and precipitation: water-level in the man-made lake had dropped 18 meters over three years, or sixty feet, due to sustained drought-with fears of a further drop of 5-6 meters. By 2010, alarmingly, Lake Mead saw the lowest water-level yet since 1956, as persistent drought without an end to demand drained the lake to unforeseen low levels. Unforeseen levels have declined so low this month to come in closer distance of the low water-level at which the Hoover Dam that created the massive reservoir would no longer be able to generate power.

The dam provides electricity to 8 million across the west. Every foot of declining lake- level subtract six megawatts of capacity, the dropping energy capacity of the Hoover Dam suggests a national crisis of unprecedented scale. As the largest reservoir in the United States having fallen to about 35 percent capacity, and having fallen a full 140 feet since 2000, automatic cuts in water supply across the southwest are imminent for August, if we indeed enter a “Tier 1 Shortage,” depriving Arizona of a fifth of the water that once flowed from the Colorado River and Nevada of over 20,000 acre feet of water, many states–as Arizona–having had such low levels of rainfall in the past year w that lake-water cannot be used in the state to fight wildfires in the state, for fears that using lake water for airdrops to extinguish local fires in the region might indeed leave local lakes dry, so dramatically has their capacity been drained over the last year alone, and lakes with a capacity for 19,500 acre feet hold but 50 acre feet.

Lake Mead Water Level - High to Low (2000-2003) - Animated… | Flickr

We would do well, regarding the maps of western aridity, to return to how John Wesley Powell set a precedent for the environmental stewardship of the West. As we face the nearly inevitable prospect of cuts in water-flow across western states, we would do well to better remember as we face the conditions in which Powell undertook to map the open area of the west–what he dubbed “the arid region”–to imagine a systematic irrigation projects of land reform as specific enclosures, dividing lands in the public domain of the western United States into drainage zones that would guarantee sufficient water-needs for future populations back in 1878. As Director of the United States Geological Survey, Powell continued to urge the nation remap the territory around the potential of water use.

In his influential remapping of what was then an “arid region,” Powell, reflecting early American environmental thought, had enterprisingly agitated for the needs for a hydrographic survey that planted the seed for the re-engineering of water use around the region’s fragile economy of water that he perceived from his 1878 survey of the western territories; as second Director of USGS, 1881–1894, he used teams of surveyors to persuade Congress to draft new lines of western settlement to best capture the fragile water ecology of the American West for easterners who had little familiarity with the stresses and specifics of lands across the 100th meridian west, a continental divide in rainfall and atmospheric moisture. Powell’s report on the region first suggested a new relation to water use and possibilities of expanding western settlement, in ways that had offered a new sense of the territory, dividing its regions around how waterways might be able to irrigate dry lands, in a proposed allocated water among western territories and states to accommodate low rainfall, incorporating familiarity with indigenous practices of water-use and land-settlement,–rather than lines of longitude and latitude that had divided western states. The map provided prospective guidelines for sustainable development: the arid plains continuing through the Sierra Ridge, created, he argued, due to parched winds, conditions of aridity he advised determine settlement of regions west of an imagined boundary drawn from Manitoba to Mexico at the 100th Meridian West.

Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Districts, 1878

The hundredth meridian is clearly visible from space, but later geographers have that one would do well to track a fault line, comparable to a geological fault, and is colored in ways that echoed Powell’s map. Remotely sensed measures of aridity, far from the barometers and surveying tools Powell’s team used, have suggested the progress of Powell’s imaginary fault line or frontier. If the line determined changed manners of ploughing and tilling already from the 98th parallel from Mid-Texas to the Dakotas, remote sensing reveals the extension eastward of atmospheric data and river hydrology as a clear eastward shift, due to climate change.

The line Powell mapped as a red line as the “Eastern Boundary of the Arid Region” from the Canadian province of Manitoba down to the Gulf of Mexico has shifted eastward from the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, probably fated to continue to advance east in future years, by using atmospheric data to project the eastward shifting of the hundredth meridian to lower longitudes. And whereas Powell primarily used careful observation of vegetation to describe the shift in the ecological character of the land lying west of the hundredth meridian, remote sensing offers new ways to validate and confirm the actuality of the current divide, since transformed by the clear-cutting of former woodlands, drainage of wetlands, and reduced land hydrology of paved areas and reduced open spaces. The recent calculation of an “Aridity Index” (AI) attempts to integrate the water able to be provided by atmosphere to the land surface against what the atmosphere extracts from the land, across seasonal variations, which read against a National Land Cover Database shows an alarming east-west gradient migrating eastward, apparently propelled by the summertime months when a drop in soil moisture and precipitation is most pronounced, creating conditions of intense aridity unprecedented in the west.

The mapping of and “Aridity Index” (AI) seems like an intelligent x-ray of the sharp discontinuities in the atmospheric and soil moisture across the nation in the past forty years, which stands in danger of disrupting traditions of farming, livestock and agriculture across the western and plains states in ways few have tried to contemplate. The “AI” seems an apt term to denote the cross-section of a shift in soil moisture and atmospheric precipitation that stand to trigger a drop in the water that the Hoover Dam long allowed to be redistributed to western states. It reveals a drop in moisture as a spatial divide heightened during summer months that parallel the sharp rises in average air temperatures and the sharp reduction of soil moisture and evapotranspiration from the soil during the intense heat of summer months, that leave upper and lower watersheds of the Colorado River parched, and suggest the dire nature of an actual national emergency.

Atmospheric Index of Soil Moisture and Atmospheric Moisture, 1979-2015

The declining moisture of the Upper Basin of the Colorado from which it gathers some 90% of its flow, compounds the reduction in size of Lake Mead, and the drainage bowl from which the Colorado River draws waters. The increasingly parched area that once drained into the Colorado–a particularly sharp decline of summer months, when we can almost ‘map’ the start of “fire season” that follows a sharp decline of land-surface hydrology driven largely by declining rainfall and atmospheric data, evident in a dramatic decline of groundwater across the western states that neatly lines up with how the 100th Meridian holds so central place in the psychogeography of the nation.

Aridity Index of Soil Moisture and Atmospheric Moisture, June-August-September, 1979-2015

Indeed, the heating up of the summer months that bring a sharp decline of atmospheric moisture or, over time, a precipitous cumulative loss of landsoil moisture, has increased the risks of destructive wildfires that demand new strategies of containment, firefighting, and monitoring in an era of climate change. The advancing eastward divide of the “central meridian” that Powell described impacts the precipitous decline of water-level in Lake Mead, which even the best data maps cannot adequately communicate or process save by employing alarmist chromatic choices of deeper and deeper shades of red.

Average Rates of Precipitation in Summer Months, June to September 1997-2015

We can, in other words, see Lake Mead as a heightened condensation of the consequences of reduced land-water as a result of climate change, whose broad impact on the spatial expansion of an “arid region” of the United States creates a far drier drainage basin for the Colorado River, whose watershed the Bureau of Land Management has effectively depended upon exclusively by putting all its proverbial eggs in one basket.

14. As climate change has presented unprecedented conditions of aridity across western states, the single map of the contraction of what was later engineered as essentially the largest American reservoir offers more than a wake-up call. While the collection of waters of the Colorado River’s expansive watershed in a man-made “lake” allowed diversion of water across western states that effectively consigned Powell’s suggestion for remapping the west to the dustbin of history–promising a new site of pleasure, vacation, and an abundance of water to meet local needs of many western states or at least to develop new deeds for agricultural economies that had never existed–the “lake” is now threatening to run dry, in ways that would shock the water infrastructure of the west, and send tremors to American farmers, agribusiness, and the workers of fields of lettuce, cabbage, alfalfa, and melons that have lead local politicians to celebrate the abundance of irrigated fields as “Winter Salad Bowls” of the United States. The buffeting of the nation by successive climate change emergencies–impending hurricanes hitting Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, rising tides on either coast, Gulf Coast algal blooms, and destructive wildfires in California, accompanied by urgent air quality alerts–saddle our minds with ecological ADD undermining all situational awareness that we had perhaps only had a premonition as the lake contracted from 2000-2003.

Unprecedented aridity across western states, including the watershed of the Colorado, has dried out Lake Mead to a historic low, creating the possibility of triggering cuts of water flowing from the Hoover Dam that would remake the western states into what Powell once mapped–the “Arid Region of the United States”–as the landscape of open desert that once defined the area rich in farming and agriculture faces steep challenges of an overheating world. The funneling of the watershed of the Colorado River created Lake Mead by a powerhouse of hydro turbines that promised to power the west–as well as a massive diversion system that has irrigated many formerly arid lands. The damming of Lake Mead created a reservoir that provoked a shift in the American West and created a watershed of its economic development and promotion as a new basis for national food supplies and development.

The popular GIF’s by which we can visualize the reduction of lake-water are compelling, but are graphics whose shock value only tracks a superficial story of reduced storage, albeit a powerful graphic of scarcity and natural resource decline. And yet by 2015, the decline of water-levels had dropped 120 feet from 2000; decline of the reservoir’s level below the magic number of 1,075 feet would trigger the first federally mandated water cuts, in the history of the Hoover Dam, as they fall to just twenty-five feet above the minimum reservoir depth to generate power. The depletion of water occurred as we were debating (or processing?) the contribution of global warming to the most destructive wildfires the west had seen–or the deluges of offshore superstorms and hurricanes–but now stands to disrupt both the power infrastructure and irrigation of the American West.

NASA Earth Observation Visualization (2010)

Yet even the apparently “full” image of the Lake of 2000 conceal the huge impact of diverting the water as a willfully stubborn intervention on the far broader ecosystem, as the growing demand for water across western states drained the “lake” or man-made reservoir, emptying its historic abundance. Early environmentalists like Powell, who pondered the future of forests in the Grand Canyon and other heights, must have realized the precipice-like nature of redesigning of the west’s topography if it was attempted to be irrigated by existing river-flow. They feared its landscape might not be able to be preserved–but hardly imagined the costs of its preservation at the scale of the assertion of the expanding demand for water across the west, or the ratcheting up of the cascading effects of the aridity global warming is asking us to process, and which remote observation only allows us to track.

The coloring of lack elevation by shades of blue suggest a powerful visualization of lake health, that demands we turn back to the use of water that the dam’s accumulation has facilitates. The current crisis of a severe absence of water should send us back to look at the intensity of Powell’s cartographic conception of the “Arid Region” he knew and loved at first hand, sharing what he believed were the valuable lessons of water-sharing and redistribution that were rooted in familiarity with the best practices to survive its dry terrain. We’re more likely to admire the bravery and responsibility of his plan for limiting water usage by innovative enclosures of settled lands beyond the modernist achievement of the damming of waters within the craggy shores of Lake Mead, or the modernist design of walling up riverine water and monitoring water levels allowed by the poured concrete of the Hoover Dam. The layers of sedimentation that the river carried have remained on the canyon walls as white band, all that was left of the acre feet that the reservoir has lost.

The shores that held water in the lake might be mapped in multiple ways by remote mapping over the terrain of a broader historical spectrum; if the chromatic panel of elevations offers the best time-stamped view of the sudden extent of its drop of elevation, a chart of “bath-tub” depth sets the parameters of “lake” loss.

19. Pardon an excursus to the border at this late point! The engineering of the Hoover Dam was once presented as a triumphant illustration of the use of American power for the public good, the diversion of waters that was allowed by the massive feat of engineering blocked the waters flowing from the massive watershed of the Colorado to allow states like Arizona and Nevada to be recast as farmlands. But these states’ water supplies are in need of such drastic reduction to send economic ripples across the nation. As the river’s flow has fallen a fifth compared to the previous century’s average, flow into Lake Mead has been reduced to a quarter of the previous normal, undermining the jerry-rigged economic advantage of the United States. For on account of the massive operation of damming up of the Mighty Colorado, or American Nile, American engineers facilitated capture and diversion of its bounty of trillions of gallons of river water to the nation, as if it was a sovereign right. The massive scheme of riverine diversion, to create the lopsided economic growth on both sides of the US-Mexico border that we are all too apt to have naturalized as an economic divide, and indeed strikingly different notions of land-use along each side of the national divide.

US-Mexico Border

The relation of global warming and migration are poorly accommodated by the national focus of the atlas as a medium. Despite the value of recent atlases, from The Atlas of Global Inequalities (Crow and Lodha; 2011), mapping economic inequalities–trade; consumption and economic migration–, power inequalities–incarceration; budget inequalities–, and inequalities in maternal mortality, child mortality, access to health care, and deforestation, the national blinders of the atlas seems unsuited to the very dynamic of cartographic exclusion that preceded global warming and that allowed the reallocation of water crossing boundaries in the natinoal imaginary.

I approached the question of migration of sediment across boundaries as an overlooked if fundamental aspect of that exclusion, but part of the archeology of imbalances to integrate within the twinned histories of globalization and climate change. Can the reallocation of water from the Colorado River not be seen as remaking the border between Mexico and the United States, creating the fields in which migrant workers now service, and removing the flow of water south of the border to what was the Sea of California, a vibrant ecosystem long nourished by the sediment flow received from the outflow of the Colorado, its rich sediment load culled from mountain ranges of the American west? The invitation to assemble a crowd-source atlas, free from editorial oversight, was an invitation to better to embody immigration as a global and transnational experience. The lens of immigration might be removed from reflexive fear and a new way to orient our nation to the world, by mapping hidden storylines–as well as itineraries–that define the global condition. It was hard not to focus on the problematic divide of the US-Mexico border as a cartographic legacy in the formation of national economical and political identity, with the increased policing of the US-Mexico border as a divide. Might the policing of the border in the pretense of national security indeed conceal the many environmental dangers that the Trump administration has sought to turn attention, and deny, by portraying them as only a brake on national economic growth and American competitiveness?

The deep national interests of economic protection that the nation has always held might be traced to the very projects of the redistribution of water rights for flow that has long run into its delta and the once rich coastal ocean of the Gulf of California, a riparian ecosystem once nearly two million acres, was as radically transformed as the hydrology of the United States by the diversion of the Colorado’s waters that reduced and ended the flow of silt and nutrients for fish and mammalian life.  If Mexico has protected the 2.3 million acres of water and land around the delta to be an environmental reserve–Reserva de la Biosfera del Alto Golfo de California y Delta del Rio Colorado–and set aside just under a fifth of the region–400,000 acres–for environmental research, and low impact ecotourism and aquaculture, the transformation of limiting water flows into the Delta by 75%, cutting the annual average of 16.7 million acre-feet (1896- 1921) to four, have reshaped the coastal ocean in ways difficult if not impossible to map in two dimensions.

The sovereign relation of states to water is poised to become a hot-button issue of the twenty-first century, and the drying out of Lake Mead prompted me to return to the map I had made, years back, for an atlas on the theme of “migration” one day, in a sort of forced pressing of the boundaries of the cartographic imagination. I made the hand-drawn map of sediment migration on the Colorado for an enterprising thematic atlas focussed on migration in an occasion planned and conceived for the Oakland–based collective Guerrilla Cartography, visual artists who push cartographic media to new frontiers, and had created alternative thematic atlases of food and water I admired. While the Colorado Basin had been mapped in multiple ways over time as a source of bountiful water and logic of westward expansion, the concept of mapping the blocked migration of sediment in the river, effected by damming of the river and the 1935 completion of the Hoover Dam, if planned from the 1922 inter-state compact, seemed ripe for mapping not by a slider bar, or a but the huge effects of the new configuration of water-flow.

The effort of redirecting the waters of the Colorado was openly political, but rooted in a reclaiming of rights to water on the map. While I wanted to focus on charting a river’s sediment flow to the ocean, I became interested in the course of the day we worked to assemble an atlas of migration on the Colorado as a passage, or a route, focussing on sediment to describe the enclosure and diversion of the river that draws its water from an expansive upper and lower watershed, not by its transformation to an irrigation system, or condensation of its pooling in a reservoir, but to suggest what was lost in the forced migration of water to western states. I wanted to see the rerouting of the Colorado as a story of blockage by focussing on the effects of its damming by what I came to see as the understanding of its flow through the filters of national sovereignty and a longterm blocking of coastal discharge that had so dramatically declined over the century to create a transformation of the coastal environment almost as dramatic as the cascading consequences of global warming itself. Even as mapping seemed to be moving–or had it already migrated?–onto online platforms, the impact of the interruption of water-flow demanded to be mapped outside the optic of a nation, and in ways that asked us to look at the effect of an integration of riverine migration on communities, as well as on the ecology of the river’s flow.

As Lake Mead shrinks, fears of a long unimaginable loss of water diverted from to western states seem a second chapter in the curtailment of the river. For the creation of the reservoir by the Hoover Dam long blocked sediment flow that the Colorado long ago transported south, into the Gulf of California and the coastal ocean that forms part of the territorial waters of Mexico. The Lake was almost primed become a deposit of sediment soon after 1935, when after thirty years alone, the Colorado River filled Lake Mead it began to fill with fine silt and sand from the Colorado River’s sediment load. Only the creation of a second dam in a network upstream in 1963 reduced the silt entering the lakebed to a tenth of its load, eliminating 90% of sediment in a significant reduction of sedimentation that also indicates the extent of sediment carried in the river as it runs south. (The construction of the Glen Canyon captures about 30K dump trucks of sand and sediment a day, or 100,000,000 tons annually, removing millions of tons of sediment that would have been sent south in river flow in the last sixty years and saving it from filling the lakebed of the reservoir and reducing its capacity, feared to disappear in two hundred years.)

Remote sensing of the “lakebed” reveals the extent to which sediment deposits remain in many of its deepest sites:

Sediment Thickness (in feet) near Hoover Dam in Lake Mead
Sediment on Lake Floor in Proximity to Hoover Dam

If Guerrilla Cartography had always been a crowd-sourced project, removed from the editorial guidance of your usual atlas, the stories of the atlas were not focussed on states so much as questioning national boundaries as a primary filters of personal experience.  Atlas in a Day: Migration was a unique experience of collaboration that has been described in a Cartographic Perspectives; the practice of map-making in an embodied on-site manner, with a group of cartographers in downtown Oakland, and coffee and pastries on hand with art supplies and a flat scanner, provided a therapeutic way to collectively respond to the unfair images of migration that have been created by an administration that seems intent to confirm that we are not interested in what happens outside our borders. And the use of craft supplies to tell this story, and dethrone the sovereignty of screens as maps the telegraphed threatening messages of migration, called attention to the materiality of the map in ways that seemed relevant to the idea of mapping sediment flow, and doing it in a manner that the starving of river sediment, as much as the redirection water, might be mapped as a consequence of historical claims of “sovereignty” over water rights. By focussing on the sediment migration of one river, rather than a regional stretch of coast, I might frame this relation.

When I had decided to participate in the quixotic effort to assemble an atlas during a day of brainstorming and searching through public data, to see what sort of maps we could offer to consider or conceptualize migration in graphic form, the effort seemed a bit like throwing pasta against a wall to see what stuck. I had been involved with an earlier atlas that Guerrilla Cartography had produced that took several years, and the notion of a collective response to a theme that was discussed the previous day seemed a bit of a folly: but for those who are trying to use maps to think creatively, and try to re-imagine problems of spatial representation, the idea of sitting in a basement on a weekend day, focussing on a map worthwhile for someone else to see–and of visual interest–appealed as a brainstorming activity, and I had been pondering mapping sediment flows of rivers–and questions of sediment obstruction–in the past, in trying to map sediment budgets and endangered species on California’s coast. Could the project of migration provide an optic to focus on human relations to water and sediment flow–a question that I was pondering for some time–that might illuminate the huge projects of blocking migration by concrete walls that had convulsed the nation with an electrifying immediacy, in ways that few had fully understood?

What sort of tools might one use to represent the problems of managing water migration, and perhaps the bizarre fact o the appropriation of “sovereignty” over waters as those of the Colorado River, as a national good, to which the nation might be seen as having a proprietary and almost exclusive right? The mapping of “national waters” of different nations had created a conceptual rubric to understand the great era of damming as a form of national infrastructure, albeit one that had, we already saw, a far shorter life than the planners of the Hoover Dam had imagined, when they cast it as a national project that cold re-write the nation’s relation to its westward expansion. The image of a national “right” to watersheds played a clear role in. the compacts of redistribution of water rights, but the invoking of the nation as a basis to starve the region known as the Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California of sediment flow was, it increasingly seemed, an optic to map migration, not only of water, but of the understanding of migration and cross-border movement in purely national terms.

20. Projects compellingly called attention to the materiality of the border wall as an obstacle contracted to obstruct migrant movement in multiple sites at the world. Expanding the cartographic as the most deeply humanistic creation and fundamentally human act, the atlas invited maps that question the value of the mapper’s identity as a computer to expand the project of the cartographer–and to question the nature of data visualization and orientation to land-claims, ownership, and place. Mapping becomes a liberatory act, taking stake of the the role mapping might occupy outside power networks–and the range of stories about migration maps might tell. If we all carry atlases in our pockets, these days, coded in the base-maps of the two billion Android devices in active monthly use globally and the one billion iOS hand-held s of 2019, a paper atlas seemed an important snapshot of the cartographic blindspots to migration, perhaps the primary process that characterizes the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The act of atlas-making is increasingly a practice we are all engaged in, carrying maps rooted in the Web Mercator on our cell phones and devices, that not only encode a world view–but seemed an undoing of the very format of the atlas that defined or interrupted continuities among nations, in ways that inherited the biases of the first atlases, to flatten the earth’s surface that privileged the northern hemisphere with the effect of magnifying Europe and the United States–and also Greenland, to take a case limit!–and give Africa short shrift: if this mashup of a map hardly provided a way to orient ourselves to travel, it was a meta-cartography, a reflection on the disproportionate sizing in the Mercator map that fit landmasses in n agenda of colonization, discounting the relative size of Africa as a mathematical flattening of the globe: although the restoration of land masses to their true size that was attempted by the Scot James Gall, whose mathematics placed him outside the colonialist mindset in 1855, using a stereographic form to minimize distortion, the time came for its popularization as an anti-atlas by 1971, as Arno Peters polemically seized upon rehabilitated a thorny subject of inherited cartographic practices of placing nations in an atlas–and indeed sizing nations by a projection of global borders that gave prominence to the northern hemisphere. Kaye realized Google had addressed Mercator’s distortions before selecting Web Mercator as a default, to liberate us from colonialist presuppositions by resizing national land masses atop the old Web Mercator projection. If not utilitarian the jarring disconnect reveals the scars of ordering the globe–

Un-Mercatoring the Globe?

–by un-Mercatorizing the globe to reveal the clear geographic biases by which Renaissance projections favor national interest, in a new digital atlas for phones as GOOGLE revisited and abandoned Web Mercator to replace a flat map by a globe, forsaking how atlasses flatten the earth in a digital age.

Google Maps

As historical atlases call attention to the ways in which old city cores have been extensively redeveloped, changes in global habitability is perhaps best indicated by the scope and scale of the new status of migration and refugee transit throughout the world, across borders, and within networks, more than the resizing of nations. Google proclaimed or marketed its global projection as a new atlas of global relations, by resizing nations, what might as well have been a conceit of marketing updated the large-scale zooming out to a global surface for a global audience, and zooming from a globe to a local space, that abandoned earlier notion of global projection by accurately displaying the earth’s global surface area.

But what would it mean to remap the inhabited globe to foreground not national boundaries, but its inhabitants to account for the global flow of five million foreign-born migrants, 150.3 million labor migrants, and almost seventy million displaced, or 25.4 million refugees? Two hundred and fifty-eight million international migrants were counted globally in 2017, representing 3.4% of the world’s population, might be made the center of an alternate redemptive atlas, less obsessed with affirming national bounds than of revealing the extent of the tension between a global map and the situation on the ground that maps omit and fail to record, and indeed often obscured by the artifice of their smooth surfaces. Refugees and migration are inseparable from borders, and although rivers are not central to most maps of migration, Sarah Popelka and Laurence Smith have shown how often rivers are not only primordial lines of borders, but a model of dividing territorial claims and space–as well as they are the basis for providing a basis for human economic activities. The Rio Grande looms large in our images of the US-Mexico border, and its massive levees built by the Trump administration were showcased as a massive effort of border building in the last public appearance Trump made as U.S. President.

The difficulty of defining a southwestern border by a site where a river divided the land provided particularly appealing, no doubt, not only as a site where border apprehensions had grown, but as a way of naturalizing the policing of the border between two Americas–where the work of the border patrol used an armed presence to affirm the divide between the United States and Mexico. Despite some intersection between hydrologic and political datasets, the absence of any riverine division between the territorial claims of a border across which migrants move has however made cross-border migration difficult to map. Would the mapping of sediment flow seemed an interesting and helpful proxy to discuss the emergence of a fixed political border of human migration outside of a riverine division of space? Although the security of the border that Donald Trump had been placing prominently in the national consciousness as a project of infrastructure, border rarely crosses the border–we often consider the border in relation to water in relation to the purification of heavily polluted water regularly crossing the border, in the Tijuana River valley, where tens of millions of gallons daily flow across the border, and an International Wastewater Treatment Plant removes heavy metals, sewage, and wastewater bearing microbes causing infections of salmonella, E. coli, and Vibrio, before it is discharged to sea. The image of the Wastewater Treatment plant has become an archetypal figure of the border, separating the crowded city of Tijuana in Baja California from San Diego County.

While the photograph of the border gained status as a symbolic emblem defining a polarity of dirty and clean, pollution and greenspace, disorder and order, overcrowding and spatial management that naturalized the border’s division, embodied in the management of sewage flowing across the border, the resistance to immigration seems clear. In place of the Border Wall, the dangers of an “open borders” seem a denial of the proud championing of “America First” that paradoxically finds unity by erecting a wall restricting immigration or cross-border movement on the border.

Before the US-Mexico border was imagined to be spanned by a Border Wall to prevent transnational migration, the border was often primarily as a line of transit of water, and of material goods. The distribution of subnational river borders that Popelka and Smith synthesized reveals the way that rivers had been naturalized as dividing lines as borders, but the pressure on rivers that ran across borders, and the increased need to establish conventions of water sharing and water management where rivers were used by different nations, no doubt destined only to increase in an age of increased water scarcity and drought. Despite the absence of a defining waterway on the southwestern border of the United States, west of the Rio Grande, the absence of such a line may have led to the massive accumulation of military material across the border, which has become hardly a line, but a zone. Popelka and Smith’s Global Subnational River-Borders used rivers in relation to borders by an open-source river dataset contrasting blue rivers against grey territorial boundaries to raise issues of cross-border hydrological management–rivers blue, against grey boundary lines. 

Three different GIS datasets were used to create the Global Subnational River Borders.  Source: Popelka and Smith, 2020.
Global and Subnatioanl River Borders. Popelka and Smith, 2018

Despite a lack of continuity in rivers among the US-Mexico border, closer examination raises the problem of cross-border sediment migration–the movement of minerals, rather than people–the history of the diverting the waters of the Colorado across western states that has often been cast as a diversion of national water rights as a usufruct mapped river-flow across the US-Mexico border only in national terms–as well as a delicate habitat or ecological system that the proposed border wall would destroy. While water had once flooded across the US-Mexico border, historically, into the Sea of Cortez at the end of the Colorado and the aquifers that run under the Sonoran desert, the wall is designed to prevent any cross-border flow, as it reifies territoriality in an arid plain, and indeed confined the flow of river-water and sediment to above the border line.

But the problem of crafting water management policies to serve multiple stakeholders across national borders–and indeed approach questions of considering “rivers and political borders as intertwined systems”–erased and conveniently recast as a purely national issue of land-management. Was it purely a coincidence that Donald Trump celebrated accelerating Border Wall construction at the point of the intersection of the Colorado, just above the delta of the Gulf of California, to promote plans to construct a barrier along the border that would be impenetrable to migrants?

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Filed under border studies, climate change, data visualization, Global Warming, mapping global warming

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