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Parcelling out the watershed: The recurring consequences of organising Columbia river management within a basin-based territory

Eve Vogel
Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, US; evevogel@geo.umass.edu

ABSTRACT: This article examines a 75-year history of North America'€™s Columbia river to answer the question: what difference does a river basin territory actually make? Advocates reason that river basins and watersheds are natural and holistic water management spaces, and can avoid the fragmentations and conflicts endemic to water management within traditional political territories. However, on the Columbia, this reasoning has not played out in practice. Instead, basin management has been shaped by challenges from and negotiations with more traditional jurisdictional spaces and political districts. The recurring result has been 'parcelling out the watershed': coordinating river management to produce a few spreadable benefits, and distributing these benefits, as well as other responsibilities and policy-making influence, to jurisdictional parts and political districts. To provide generous spreadable benefits, river management has unevenly emphasised hydropower, resulting in considerable environmental losses. However, benefits have been widely spread and shared - and over time challengers have forced management to diversify. Thus a river basin territory over time produced patterns of both positive and negative environmental, social, economic, and democratic outcomes. To improve the outcomes of watershed-based water management, we need more interactive and longer-term models attentive to dynamic politics and geographies.