The Mississippi’s eastern branches, chiefly the Ohio and the Tennessee, are also navigable for great distances. From the west, however, many of its numerous Great Plains tributaries are too seasonal and choked with sandbars to be used for shipping. The Missouri, for example, though longer than the Mississippi itself, was essentially without navigation until the mid-20th century, when a combination of dams, locks, and dredging opened the river to barge traffic.
The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence system, the other half of the midcontinental inland waterway, is connected to the Mississippi–Ohio via Chicago by canals and the Illinois River.
The five Great Lakes (four of which are shared with Canada) constitute by far the largest freshwater lake group in the world and carry a larger tonnage of shipping than any other. The three main barriers to navigation—the St. Marys Rapids, at Sault Sainte Marie; Niagara Falls; and the rapids of the St. Lawrence—are all bypassed by locks, whose 27-foot draft lets ocean vessels penetrate 1,300 miles into the continent, as far as Duluth, Minnesota, and Chicago.
The third group of Eastern rivers drains the coastal strip along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Except for the Rio Grande, which rises west of the Rockies and flows about 1,900 circuitous miles to the Gulf, few of these coastal rivers measure more than 300 miles, and most flow in an almost straight line to the sea. Except in glaciated New England and in arid southwestern Texas, most of the larger coastal streams are navigable for some distance.
The Pacific systems in Unites States of America
West of the Rockies, nearly all of the rivers are strongly influenced by aridity. In the deserts and steppes of the intermontane basins, most of the scanty runoff disappears into interior basins, only one of which, the Great Salt Lake, holds any substantial volume of water. Aside from a few minor coastal streams, only three large river systems manage to reach the sea—the Columbia, the Colorado, and the San Joaquin–Sacramento system of California’s Central Valley.
All three of these river systems are exotic: that is, they flow for considerable distances across dry lands from which they receive little water. Both the Columbia and the Colorado have carved awesome gorges, the former through the sombre lavas of the Cascades and the Columbia Basin, the latter through the brilliantly coloured rocks of the Colorado Plateau.
These gorges lend themselves to easy damming, and the once-wild Columbia has been turned into a stairway of placid lakes whose waters irrigate the arid plateaus of eastern Washington and power one of the world’s largest hydroelectric networks. The Colorado is less extensively developed, and proposals for new dam construction have met fierce opposition from those who want to preserve the spectacular natural beauty of the river’s canyon lands.