Water resources Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The exploitation of natural resources, including water resources, has driven the economic development of the United States since its inception and reaches back to the founding of the European colonies during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Given water’s essential role in Earth’s biosphere, there is virtually no aspect of business that has not been dependent, directly or indirectly, on regular access to it.

Although the water resources of the United States include precipitation and surface water (lakes, rivers, and so on), most of the nation’s water is found in the soil and in aquifers. As the demand for water has increased, seawater has become increasingly important in coastal areas. English colonists on the eastern shores of North America relied primarily on small-scale farming to sustain themselves, although in the southern colonies, the use of slave labor encouraged a plantation system of agriculture. In both North and South, the growth of crops was generally assured by abundant rainfall.Water resources

From the earliest days, the colonies’ numerous watercourses were harnessed by Millsmills equipped with a variety of waterwheels, allowing their owners to supplement manual labor with water-powered machines. Acting under the terms of a 1620 charter, English colonizer Sir Ferdinando Gorges built a gristmill (for grinding grain into meal) on the Newichewannick River in Maine. Rapidly flowing water was necessary to the functioning of mills, but where a suitable stream was lacking, one could be provided. Two decades after Gorges built his mill, English colonists dug a canal near Dedham, Massachusetts, to carry water from the Charles River into the Neponset River. They then harnessed the flow of water to run their own mill. Delaware inventor Oliver Evans built a fully automated gristmill on Red Clay Creek in Delaware in 1782 and subsequently patented the design.

The first sawmills in North America appear to have been built in Jamestown, Virginia, in the very early seventeenth century, but numerous others followed in short order. Forestry industryBesides running the saws themselves, water could also be used to power the carriages moving the logs through the sawing process. Depending on the terrain, timber workers floated cut logs down existing streams to the mill or built long wooden flumes down which logs could be carried by flowing water. Watercourses were essential in early years for transporting cut lumber to market as well.

At first, mills might employ only one or two workers on a part-time basis, but as the century progressed, industrial development and manufacturing became increasingly important. In 1790, three entrepreneurs built the country’s first mechanized textile mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Such developments led to the creation of numerous subsidiary activities and enterprises, creating communities and spurring the growth of their economies.

Whereas farmers had relied on surface water or dug shallow wells for their drinking water, towns and cities came to require centralized systems to provide adequate supplies of household water. As early as 1652, the Water Works Company of Boston, Massachusetts, put together a system of wooden pipes to carry water from nearby springs to a small central reservoir. Public utilitiesThis system proved inadequate, and in 1795, the Aqueduct Corporation began supplying the city with water from Roxbury’s Jamaica Pond. Meanwhile a water pumping plant built by Hans Christopher Christiansen in 1755 began carrying water to a seventy-foot tower in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were sixteen waterworks in the country, all but one of them privately owned.

The Nineteenth Century

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the area of the United States had grown to 888,811 square miles, of which 24,065 square miles were inland water. The country remained predominantly agricultural for the early decades of the century, but while rainfall provided water for crops in the East, watering by Agriculture;irrigationirrigation proved necessary west of the one-hundredth meridian of longitude. In 1847, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints set an example by creating a large-scale canal system in Utah.

Thanks to its water resources, the United States could boast more than ten thousand mills at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The country’s first integrated cotton textile mill, the Boston Manufacturing Company, was built in 1814 on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, by Francis Cabot Lowell, Francis CabotLowell and several fellow entrepreneurs. Selling stock, Lowell and his partners chose a location on the Merrimack River to build an industrial center that would become known as Lowell. Recognizing that the river’s waters would be an ideal source of power, the company dug an extensive system of canals and built textile mills on their banks. By mid-century, Lowell’s ten major mill complexes employed some ten thousand workers, many of them immigrants from Ireland, and the city had become the largest manufacturing site in the country.

Lowell’s growth led to the creation of similar complexes, and by 1840, there were over sixty-six thousand mills in the United States. Nearly one-half were sawmills and nearly one-third gristmills, with the remainder involved in producing textiles and tanning hides.

The Croton Reservoir at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City in 1850.

(New York Historical Society)

The development of the turbine revolutionized industry during the 1840’s. Although they are essentially waterwheels, hydraulic turbines take advantage of the pressure and velocity of water in an enclosed casing to produce increased power in a smaller space. American engineer James B. Francis, James B.Francis developed an efficient “reaction turbine” in 1849, and within two decades, the turbine had become the principal source of power in New England’s mills.

Despite waterpower’s role in the industrial growth of the country, the use of the steam turbine and steam power in the second half of the century quickly eclipsed it in importance, and by 1889 some 80 percent of the power produced in the country was steam. However, the development of Hydroelectricityhydroelectricity–in which turbines harnessed waterpower to create electricity–altered the geography of the country’s economic development once again. Power could be transmitted on overhead lines, making it unnecessary to site plants near rivers. The first such transmission appears to have taken place in Oregon in 1889, when electricity was transmitted thirteen miles from a power station at Willamette Falls, near Oregon City, to Portland. In 1896, a line twenty-two miles long was built to transmit alternating current from a power station on the Niagara River to Buffalo, New York.

Throughout the century, outbreaks of disease encouraged the creation of hygienic municipal water systems. Such a system went into operation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1801, spurred by an epidemic of yellow fever. Designed by Benjamin Latrobe, BenjaminLatrobe, the system used steam engines to pump water from the Schuylkill River. An outbreak of cholera prompted New York to create its own system for fresh water. The Croton AqueductCroton Aqueduct project–which involved a dam, four reservoirs, and a fifty-mile aqueduct–opened in 1842 and cost over $10 million. Thirty years later, Poughkeepsie, New York, which drew water from the Hudson River, became the first city in the country to filter its water supply. In 1896, there were 3,196 waterworks in operation, 47 percent of which were privately owned.

The Twentieth Century and After

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the area of the United States had grown to 3,022,387 square miles, of which 52,553 square miles were inland water. The Great Lakes, lying between the United States and Canada, accounted for another 60,052 square miles. Water use would rise steadily for most of the century, reaching 180 billion gallons per day in 1950 and 440 billion gallons per day in 1980. By 1985, use had dropped about 10 percent as a result of economic, technological, and legal factors. In 2000, use totaled 408 billion gallons per day, nearly 80 percent of it drawn from surface sources.

The passage of the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 led to federal financing of irrigation projects in the West, although water users were expected to pay back the costs over time. Among many such projects, the Colorado River Project and the Columbia River Basin Project were the largest. At the turn of the twentieth century the amount of water used for irrigation had been just over 20 billion gallons per day–half of the country’s total water use. The figure for irrigation rose to 150 billion gallons per day in 1980, although it fell somewhat in the remaining years of the century, accounting for one-third of the country’s water use at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Hydroelectricity remained important, with its generation concentrated in mountainous regions with heavy precipitation. Here, too, the federal government played an important role, funding major projects such as the Tennessee Valley AuthorityTennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Created in 1933, the TVA eventually generated power to more than 8.3 million people in seven southern states. By the end of the twentieth century, hydroelectricity accounted for about 10 percent of the country’s electrical power production.

Thermoelectric-power water use–that is, its utilization in generating electricity in steam turbines and in cooling equipment involved in generating electricity by other means–accounted for a growing percentage of the nation’s water use in the second half of the twentieth century. Such use was estimated to be 40 billion gallons per day in 1950, less than one-quarter of the total, but it rose to 210 billion gallons per day in 1980. Like other uses, thermoelectric-power use dropped in subsequent years, but it totaled 195 billion gallons per day in 2000–nearly half of the nation’s total. Depending on their location, thermoelectric power plants were able to draw on the nation’s increasingly important coastal waters, which totaled 42,528 square miles at the end of the twentieth century. Other industrial use of water rose to 47 billion gallons per day in 1970 but fell afterward.

The twentieth century saw an improvement in municipal water supply systems. In 1908, Jersey City, New Jersey, began treating its water supply with chlorine, becoming the first American city to do so on a wide scale. In 1945, Grand Rapids, Michigan, began fluoridating its water supply to fight tooth decay. The post-World War II population boom led to the expansion of water systems, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was estimated that the annual cost of operating the nation’s water systems was more than $3.5 billion. The average American residence used more than 100,000 gallons of water per year at a cost of about $200.

In the second half of the twentieth century, water became a matter of growing concern, with federal legislation such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (amended in 1986 and 1996) setting higher standards for water drawn from all sources. As demand for water grew and the extent of pollution became evident, desalination became economically viable. The nation’s first fully operational seawater desalination plant was opened in 1961 at Freeport Texas. Initially, the plant produced some one million gallons of useable water per day, with costs running between $1 and $1.25 per thousand gallons.

Further Reading
  • Holmes, Beatrice Hort. A History of Federal Water Resources Program, 1800-1960. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 1972. Succinct chronological account of the U.S. government’s role in managing water resources.
  • Hunter, Louis C. Waterpower in the Century of the Steam Engine. Vol. 1 in A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979. Authoritative and exhaustive analysis of waterpower in the development of the nation. Numerous illustrations, tables, appendixes, and bibliographical notes.
  • Milazzo, Paul Charles. Unlikely Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945-1972. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. Examines pioneering efforts by federal legislators to ensure the quality of the nation’s water supply. Illustrations, bibliography.
  • Outwater, Alice B. Water: A Natural History. New York: Basic Books, 1996. Overview by an environmental engineer of the nation’s water resources and historical survey of their development, management, and mismanagement.
  • Rowley, William D. Reclamation: Managing Water in the West. Vol. 1 in The Bureau of Reclamation: Origins and Growth to 1945. Denver: Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2006. Comprehensive history of the bureau’s operations in providing irrigation water to the arid west. Illustrations, maps, bibliography.




Colorado River water

Dams and aqueducts

Erie Canal

Fishing industry

Irrigated farming

Mineral resources

Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

Public utilities

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