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Geography, Lakes, Rivers, and Coastlines

old Northwest Territory, Central Valley Project, Louisiana Territory, Missouri rivers, Appalachian region

Water features, including lakes, rivers, and coastlines, have played an important role in the development of the United States. For centuries, Native Americans used rivers, lakes, and coastal waters extensively for transportation and as a source of food and drinking water. Beginning in the 16th century, the first Europeans arrived by sea in what would become the United States, settling along coastal regions and exploring inland on water routes such as the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers and the Great Lakes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, English colonists in settlements along the Atlantic coast relied on sea trade with Europe, both as an origin of essential imports and a destination for exported goods.

Before railroads were extended across the western frontier, settlers traveled by river as they moved away from coastal settlements into the interior of the continent. The Ohio River was the main water route leading to the old Northwest Territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers provided access to the newly acquired lands of the west.

Water transportation remains important to the American economy today. Shipping commodities by water is time-consuming but relatively inexpensive, especially for commodities that are bulky, but relatively inexpensive by weight, such as coal, wood products, petroleum, metallic ores, and foodstuffs. Oceans, rivers, lakes, and canals are used to carry enormous quantities of raw materials and finished products throughout the United States as well as to overseas destinations. The coastlines of the United States are dotted with port cities that serve as gateways for goods being exported from or imported into the country.

The fresh water provided by U.S. lakes and rivers also plays an important role as a natural resource. Vast quantities of water must be available for basic daily activities, including drinking, cleaning, and washing, as well as for commercial activities, such as crop irrigation and industrial production. Arid regions of the nation, such as the desert Southwest and southern California, as well as many large U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have outgrown local supplies. Water must be piped to these locations from sources hundreds of miles away.

Americans have addressed water distribution problems by building dams, reservoirs, and other engineering projects. The structures found in the eastern portion of the United States, such as the dams constructed in the Appalachian region, were built largely for flood control. Many of those located in the West were built primarily to irrigate arid land; one example is the Central Valley Project in California.

These water control programs have important secondary uses, such as generating electricity and creating recreational opportunities. Hydroelectric facilities, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and in the Tennessee Valley, provide considerable electrical energy. The reservoirs behind many of the country’s larger dams afford a variety of recreational water activities that otherwise would not be available.

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