Awesome National Waters

The Greatest of Lakes – Our Most Essential Freshwater Asset!

The Great Lakes – Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior – comprise arguably the greatest and most critical water asset in our country. Connected by a series of canals and rivers, the Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world -  approximately 18% of the world’s supply and 90% of the U.S. supply. The 6 quadrillion (6,000,000,000,000,000) gallons of water in the Lakes is enough to cover North America in about 3.5 feet of water, or the continental U.S. in almost 10 feet of water.  The Great Lakes are among the world’s 15 largest lakes. The Lakes are actually quite young compared to the oceans of the world showing their current shape around 10,000 years ago.
Individual Lake Facts:

Lake Erie

  • Lake Erie is named for its shape, similar to that of a long tail, form the Iroquoian word erielhonan.
  • It is the 4th largest of the Great Lakes when measured by surface area (9,910 square miles) and the smallest by volume of water (116 cubic miles).
  • Retention Time (amount of time it takes for a pollutant introduced into the lake to be flushed out) – 2.6 years.

Lake Huron

  • Lake Huron is named for the Wyandot Indians, or Hurons, who once lived there.
  • It is the 2nd largest of the Great Lakes by surface area (23,000 square miles) and the 5th largest in the world.
  • Massive sinkholes are located in Lake Huron that have large amounts of sulfur and low amounts of oxygen. These sinkholes mimic the conditions of Earth’s ancient oceans 3 million years ago.
  • Lake Huron has the longest shoreline (3,827 miles) when one takes into account its many islands.
  • Manitoulin Island is located within Lake Huron and is the largest island in any inland body of water on the planet.
  • The Straits of Mackinac divides Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, otherwise the two lakes might be considered one lake. Hydrologically speaking, they have the same mean water level and are considered one lake.
  • Retention Time (amount of time it takes for a pollutant introduced into the lake to be flushed out) – 22 years.

Lake Michigan

  • The Ojibwa Indian word mishigami, meaning large lake, is where Lake Michigan gets its name.
  • It is the 3rd largest of the Great Lakes by surface area (22,300 square miles) and 6th largest in the world.
  • The water in Lake Michigan flows in an unusual way, moving in a slow circular pattern.
  • It is the only Great Lake located entirely in the United States.
  • The largest freshwater sand dunes in the world line the shores of Lake Michigan.
  • Water in Lake Michigan enters and exits through the same path resulting in a retention time that is 77 years longer than that of Lake Huron (99 years for Lake Michigan).
  • Lake Michigan has a “triangle” with a reputation similar to that of the Bermuda Triangle.  Large numbers of “strange disappearances” have occurred in this area and UFO sightings have also been reported. 
  • The first recorded Great Lakes disaster happened on Lake Michigan. A steamer carrying 600 people collided with a schooner delivering timber to Chicago. Four hundred and fifty people died.

Lake Ontario

  • Lake Ontario gets its name from the Huron word Ontario meaning lake of shining water.
  • It is the smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area (7,340 square miles), but 14th largest lake in the world.
  • Lake Ontario is similar to Lake Erie in length and width, but it is much deeper and hold about 4 times the volume of water (393 cubic miles).
  • Lake Ontario is the base of Niagara Falls.
  • Retention Time (amount of time it takes for a pollutant introduced into the lake to be flushed out) – 6 years.

Lake Superior

  • The name Lake Superior comes from the French word lac supérieur, meaning upper lake, as it is north of Lake Huron.
  • It is the largest in both surface area (31,699 square miles) and in water volume (2,903 cubic miles).
  • All of the four other Great Lakes, plus three more the size of Lake Erie, would fit inside of Lake Superior.
  • Lake Superior contains half of the 6 quadrillion gallons of water found in all 5 Great Lakes combined.  There is enough water in Lake Superior to submerge all of North and South America in 1 foot of water.
  • The water in Lake Superior leaves through small outlets. It takes two centuries for all the water in the lake to replace itself.


The Embattled, But Ever Critical, Colorado River – Our Nation’s Posterchild for Conservation!

The 1,450 mile Colorado River is the nation’s 7th longest river and flows through seven states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, California, and Nevada.  The river is the Southwest’s only major river supplying drinking water to nearly 40 million people and irrigating close to 6 million acres of farmland. Eleven national parks are located along the banks of the Colorado River, including the Grand Canyon, Arches, and Rocky Mountain National Park. The rive is a national icon, linking together some of the most beautiful landscapes and ecosystems in the country!

The name Colorado comes from the Spanish word for red color. The river used to look red because of the red sandstone silt that would cover the river basin making it look red. In 1963, the river quit looking after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam blocked all the red silt from flowing into the river, thus taking away the river's red color. Not only has the damming of the river removed its red color, but it has also caused a significant temperature drop.  The river once reached temperatures over 80oF, today it does not exceed 47oF. 

Another dam present on the Colorado River is the Hoover Dam.  Lake Mead is formed by the Hoover Dam.  The lake is 110 miles long and forms the border between Nevada and Arizona. The lake was last full in 1998.  Since that time, the water level has fallen by nearly 60% or over 100 feet.  The decrease in water level is clearly visible from the lake’s edge where one can see lines on the rock walls.

The river has been given the nickname River of Law due to the large number of legal disagreements over its water. Today, nearly all the river’s water is controlled.  Las Vegas, one of the largest cities in the Colorado River basin, has a relatively small share of the river.  In 1922, when officials allocated the Colorado’s water to various states, no one expected so many people to be living in the Nevada desert. So Nevadans have become used to the limitations and restrictions. Communities must follow strict watering schedules – one can’t water his yard or wash her car whenever he/she would like. Homeowners are paid by the water authority to replace high water consuming lawns with rocks and drought-tolerant plants. Golf courses are also required to adhere to water restrictions. Nearly all the wastewater from the region is reused or returned to the Colorado River.




Niagara Falls – A Cultural Love Affair with Gorgeous Cascading Water!

Niagara Falls is the collective name of the waterfalls that cross the Canadian and United States border.  The three waterfalls that form Niagara Falls are Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.  Horseshoe Falls lies primarily on the Canadian side, while American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls lie entirely on the American side. On the American side, Niagara Falls is a state park – the oldest state park in the United States.  It was established in 1885 as Niagara Reservation, one of several that eventually became the cornerstones to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Niagara Falls has receded 7 miles in 12,500 years and may be the fastest moving waterfall in the world.

3,160 tons of water flows over Niagara Falls every second. Included in this number are the 75,750 gallons of water per second that flow over the American and Bridal Veil Falls and the 681,750 gallons per second over the Horseshoe Falls. Water for the falls comes from the Niagara River which is fed by four of the five Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie). After the water flows over the falls it eventually empties into Lake Ontario, the 5th of the Great Lakes.  Water from the river flows over the Falls at a rate of 32 feet per second, hitting the base of the falls with 280 tons of force at the American and Bridal Veil Falls and 2,509 tons of force at the Horseshoe Falls. 

Not all the water from the Niagara River flows over the Falls.  Some of it is diverted for power generation; however, this amount is regulated.  The 1950 Niagara Treaty contains the basis for determining how much water can be diverted for power generation.  The treaty also specifies that the flow over the falls must not be less than 50,000 cubic feet per second.  During daylight hours of tourist season (8am to 10pm local time from April 1 to September 15 and 8am to 8pm local time September 16 to October 31), the treaty requires that the flow over Niagara Falls be no less than 100,000 cubic feet per second. Any water in excess of what is needed for domestic and sanitary purposes, navigation and the falls flow, may be diverted and used for power generation.

During peak daytime tourist hours, more than 6 million cubic feet of water go over the crestline of the Falls every minute.  Visitors used to be allowed to walk out on the ice bridge and view the Falls from below. On February 24, 1888, the local newspaper reported at least 20,000 people were out on the ice watching or tobogganing.  Shanties were everywhere selling liquor, photographs and other oddities.  The ability to walk out on the ice bridge ended in 1912 after three tourist lives were lost when the ice bridge broke apart.


Chesapeake Bay – A Spectacular Collison of Fresh and Salt Water Ecologies!

The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary located inland of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington DC.  It is the largest of more than 100 estuaries in the United States holding more than 18 trillion (18,000,000,000,000) gallons of water and the 3rd largest in the world.  Estuaries are unique in that they are a body of water where freshwater and saltwater mix.

The Chesapeake Bay produces about 500 million pounds of seafood per year.  Numbers have decreased over the years due to pollution.  There were once so may bay oyster that they could filter the entire quantity of water in the Bay (18 trillion gallons) in three days.  It would now take over a year to complete the same task. 

Agricultural runoff is the biggest source of nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay accounting for 41% of the nitrogen pollution in the Bay, mostly due to animal waste and fertilizers. There are many pollutants to take into account, but nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment are the most damaging as they cause algal blooms and dead zones every single year.

Despite the damage the pollution is causing, the Bay has plenty of life. It is home to over 2,700 species of wildlife and a 51% increase in the abundance of spawning-age female blue crabs was seen between 2012 and 2013.  An increase in blue crab abundance is a sign that management methods are working.  Thanks to volunteers, over 6 million pounds of debris from nearly 6,000 miles of shoreline have been removed on Clean the Bay Day since 1989.