How the States Got Their Shapes

A River Runs Through It

Season 1, Ep 1, Aired 5/3/11
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  • Episode Description
  • Water formed natural boundaries long before bridges and highways crisscrossed the country. But, over time, water changes course - and conflict often ensues when it does. Why do some states seem to get more water than they need while others go without? Today, far from forming stable borders, rivers, lakes and streams are still changing the map - and breeding conflict.

  • Cast & Crew
  • Brian Unger


  • David Konschnik

  • Timothy Dilworth

  • Mark Stein (I)


  • H. W. Brands


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  • Trivia & Quotes
  • Quotes (7)

    • Brian: Water literally shapes our states ... with our oceans, rivers and lakes forming most of our borders. In fact, every state but four has some water on its border. But water is not just a line on a map or a driving hazard, these days, and increasingly, it is a valuable commodity.

    • Brian: When Congress cut Tennessee from North Carolina, they had their eyes on one crucial body of water - the Mississippi River. In our rush westward, it didn't matter at the time if all the lines were exactly right.
      H. W.: Borders, political borders, can be established with ... not a whole lot of care or concern - if there's nobody there - and that's usually when the border's established. "Okay, nobody's there, we'll just draw the line. Nobody really cares." Then people show up - and they start to care where the border is. But once the border is written on a map, it's very difficult to move it.

    • H. W.: Everything west of about the hundredth meridian is arid country, it's desert. And unless it is modified by human activity, it's essentially uninhabitable - at least, uninhabitable in any large scale. And so, if you want to get a lot of people in a place like ... Las Vegas, you somehow have to command enough water to get people there. Water is the critical thing.
      Brian: Nevada embodies how water shaped the western states. Its largest city is Las Vegas. With two million residents, it consumes 255 million gallons of water every day. I'm only a few miles outside Las Vegas and it's plainly obvious that this is not an ideal place to build a gigantic city. It's the driest state in the United Sates and ... this is the Mojave Desert.

    • Brian: Lake Mead, the country's largest reservoir. The Hoover Dam blocks the Colorado River and forms Lake Mead. It's all a wonder of engineering - but thing don't look so wonderful right now. That bathtub ring means one thing : water levels are dropping. So, the depletion of the water supply that comes from the Colorado River is pretty evident. The white line, the demarcation you see on the mountains here, is really an alkaline marker, or a line that shows you where the water once was - and that water line drops down more than 100 feet and has done so since the 1990's. So where is all the water going? Well, the Colorado River is used by seven states. It's the nations driest region so each state has staked its claim to the water. Now, the growth of western cities is sucking the river dry.

    • Mark: When California became a state, when it created its own boundaries, they were primarily these straight-line boundaries that were keeping these mountains in California for the gold, but they also had a concern about water. That eastern boundary of California, a nice straight line, and then it squiggles. That squiggle, it goes down to the gulf of California, is the Colorado river.
      Brian: For 80 years, the river was just a line on the map. But, starting in the 1930's, California began draining off the Colorado. They turned desert into farmland - now producing almost 80% of America's winter vegetables. So how much water does California take from the Colorado? 1.5 trillion gallons - more than is consumed by Seattle, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Washington, DC., Philadelphia and New York City - combined. Or, more than enough to cover all of New Jersey in one foot of water - every year.

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    Notes (1)

    • <a href="">Mark Stein</a>, author of <em>How The States Got Their Shapes</em>, appears periodically, in every episode, to explain how a given set of circumstances either forged or changed a particular state's borders. <a href="">H. W. Brands</a>, a history professor from the University of Texas at Austin, also appears regularly to explain how a bit of history led to the particular, and often peculiar, borders we see on our maps today.

    Trivia (2)

    • Also Appearing:

      In addition to the unnamed local folks who are a part of every show, this episode's interviewees were Bart Crattie (Land Surveyor), Rep. Harry Geisinger (Georgia House of Representatives), Brad Carver (Lawyer), Robert Marvinney (Maine State Geologist), John A. Ricker (Poland Springs Preservation Society), Richards Stewart (Bureau of Reclamation), and Gail Kaiser (Lake Mead Marina Owner).

    • In addition to Lenny Williams and Chris Biondo, music for this episode was provided by Audio Network, Clean Cuts, Extreme Music, and Jingle Punks.

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