I'm really glad that Strange Maps featured the interesting (albeit never realized) notion of John Wesley Powell's watershed-based approach to defining political boundaries in his 1890 'Map of the Arid Region of the United States'. The concept reframes the Jeffersonian national grid, using drainage districts as "the essential units of government, either as states or as watershed commonwealths".
Some further information: "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."
:: image via Strange Maps
Just imagine the differing political geography of a West that is defined through natural boundaries of topography and hydrology, and what implications While Powell's emphasis was on agriculture, imagine the different ways this would have allowed for looking at urbanization in the relatively dryland west that would have resulted through looking at availability of water. Would Los Angeles and Phoenix be the same as they are today?
:: image via MIT
The concept obviously was a radically different approach to the orthagonally based, Jeffersonian approach in the late 18th Century, now continued to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management through the Public Land Survey System (a good resource of info as well from from National Atlas).
Some pertinent history, from the site: "Originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson, the PLSS began shortly after the Revolutionary War, when the Federal government became responsible for large areas west of the thirteen original colonies. The government wished both to distribute land to Revolutionary War soldiers in reward for their service, as well as to sell land as a way of raising money for the nation. Before this could happen, the land needed to be surveyed. The Land Ordinance of 1785 which provided for the systematic survey and monumentation of public domain lands, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787which established a rectangular survey system designed to facilitate the transfer of Federal lands to private citizens, were the beginning of the PLSS."The remnant of this being the rather 'straight-edge' development of political boundaries for delineating terrain that we live with today - the only diversions being for river edges that divide states, mostly expressed in the Montana/Idaho and somewhat less in the Washington/Oregon borders.
:: image via National Atlas
:: image via Wikipedia
Which maybe reads a bit different in a drier region, such as that of agricultural Kansas (where the use of fixed pivot irrigation is evident).
:: image via Wikiipedia
My favorite example of course, growing up in North Dakota where one is intimately connected to the Jeffersonian grid, is the use of the 6x6 mile township system dividing land into an individual square mile pattern to develop a road system that literally etches gravel pathways throughout every corner of the state (allowing a significant amount of public access to territory via ca, ostensibly for access to farmland). It's virtually possible to zig-zag your way from one end of the state to another. It's also interesting to note, even with a seemingly barren flat landscape, the subtle patterns of water (creeks and potholes) on the land (more on this later as I sat staring at Google Earth closeups for about an hour, mesmerized).
:: image via Google Maps