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Large construction and engineering projects, which often cost millions of dollars to complete, are common across North America. Building a dam, in particular, leads to the creation of enormous artificial lakes known as reservoirs. The purpose of a reservoir is to store water later used to supply households and businesses. Reservoirs are also used to collect water that generates hydroelectricity. Moreover, many of these bodies of water have become popular recreation areas for outdoor activities, such as boating and fishing. From California to the Canadian province of Québec, here are eight of the largest reservoirs in North America.
Lake Shasta (California)
With a total capacity of 4,552,000 acre-feet and a surface area of 30,000 acres, Lake Shasta is the largest human-made reservoir in California and the state’s third-largest body of water after Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea. The reservoir was created in 1948, following the construction of the 602-foot-tall Shasta Dam, which restricts the flow of the Sacramento River. Erected in 1948, the dam took seven years to complete. Visitors can walk across the top for views of the dam’s massive generators, the lake’s crystal-clear water, and the perennially snow-capped Mount Shasta.
About 365 miles of mountainous shoreline wrap around the reservoir and are dotted with marinas, making the area a paradise for boating and other watersports such as jet-skiing and wakeboarding. Fishing enthusiasts can cast a line in the hope of catching upwards of 20 species, including bass, crappie, and sturgeon.
Fort Peck Lake (Montana)
Fort Peck Lake is Montana’s largest body of water and the fifth-largest reservoir in the United States. It stretches for over 130 miles and has a 1,520-mile-long shoreline, which is longer than the entirety of California’s coastline. The reservoir was created in the 1930s, when the nearly four-mile-long Fort Peck Dam was built across the Missouri River. The dam is the largest hydraulically-filled dam in the world and its five turbines can generate 185,250 kilowatts of power. Guided tours retrace the dam's construction and visit its power plants.
Bordering the lake is the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge, offering over a million acres of recreational area for birding, camping, fishing, and hiking. An impressive 50 species of fish, such as chinook salmon, trout, and walleye, inhabit the lake. Boat owners can launch into the placid waters from ramps located at all of the lake’s marinas.
Lake Oahe (North Dakota and South Dakota)
Measuring 230 miles long, Lake Oahe is the fourth-largest reservoir by volume in the United States. Framed by sprawling prairie grassland, the body of water connects Pierre, South Dakota, to Bismarck, North Dakota. Lake Oahe is formed by the Oahe Dam, which stops the flow of the Missouri River about eight miles north of Pierre. It is one of the largest earth-rolled dams on the planet (made of layers of compacted rock) and provides electricity to many Midwestern states. Adjacent to the dam, the Lake Oahe Visitor Center has exhibits about the construction of the dam and the region’s natural history.
There are over 50 recreational areas around the shores of the reservoir. Popular activities on the reservoir include kayaking, paddleboarding, tubing, and waterskiing. Wildlife lovers enjoy spotting bald eagles, while anglers come hoping to catch catfish, pike, and salmon. Meanwhile, history buffs can visit nearby historical forts and the gravesite of legendary Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull.
Lake Sakakawea (North Dakota)
Lake Sakakawea is surrounded by the Badlands of western North Dakota, about 75 miles north of Lake Oahe along the Missouri River. This vast body of water is 178 miles in length and reaches depths of 175 feet. The name Sakakawea comes from the young Shoshone-Hidatsa woman who helped Lewis and Clark explore the Louisiana Territory. The reservoir was created following the completion of the Garrison Dam by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1956. Controversy surrounded the dam project because the newly-formed reservoir forced members of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation from their villages.
Today, Lake Sakakawea is both a vital source of hydroelectric power and a popular recreational destination. Its 1,500-mile-long shoreline provides dozens of easy access points for boats — making it a favored location for camping, fishing, and swimming. It’s also flanked by several state parks and wildlife management areas. They include the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Sakakawea State Park.
Lake Powell (Arizona and Utah)
The second-largest reservoir in the United States straddles the border of Utah and Arizona. Part of the Colorado River, Lake Powell has a storage capacity of 27,000,000 acre-feet, stretches 186 miles long, and has over 2,000 miles of shoreline. It was formed in 1963, after the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam and took 17 years to reach full pool (normal water level). Glen Canyon Dam is a 710-foot-tall, concrete arch-gravity dam — a type of dam which is curved upstream and directs water pressure against the surrounding rock walls — and was built to provide water storage and hydroelectric power to southwestern states.
In addition to creating the reservoir, the construction of the dam paved the way for the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The area’s 1.25 million acres of land are famous for surreal geological landscapes. One example is Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which is one of the world’s highest natural bridges. Offering backcountry hiking, off-road driving, rafting, and wilderness camping, the region is a treasured stomping ground for outdoor adventurers.
Lake Mead (Arizona and Nevada)
Also on the Colorado River, and just 45 miles away from the Las Vegas Strip, is the largest reservoir by volume in the United States. Lake Mead was created after the construction of one of the world’s most well-known dams, Hoover Dam. It’s a valuable source of water for the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, in addition to areas of northern Mexico. When at full capacity, the reservoir’s surface rises to 1,220 feet. It has the potential to store up to 36 trillion liters of water.
Like many human-made reservoirs, Lake Mead doubles as a busy recreational zone. It’s incorporated within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which boasts 1.5 million acres of jaw-dropping scenery featuring canyons, valleys, and mountains. Visitors can do everything from hiking amid diverse ecosystems and backcountry horseback-riding to kayaking in hidden coves and scuba-diving.
Williston Lake (British Columbia, Canada)
Located in the valley of the Rocky Mountains Trench in northern British Columbia is Williston Lake. This is the second-largest reservoir by volume in North America and the seventh-largest in the world. Created by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, the lake has a maximum length of 156 miles, a maximum width of 96 miles, and a surface area of 435,200 acres. The dam was built between 1961 and 1968 as a hydroelectricity station currently capable of generating 2,790,000 kilowatts. A solar-powered radio service is operated from here as a means for workers and vacationers to use for communicating emergencies, hazards, and safety updates.
Outdoor enthusiasts descend upon Williston Lake throughout the summer to go boating, fishing, swimming, and waterskiing. There are also numerous opportunities to experience British Columbia’s remote wilderness at Ed Bird-Estella Lakes Provincial Park, Muscovite Lakes Provincial Park, and other parks along the water. The reservoir also freezes over from November to mid-January and turns into a playground for snowmobiling and ice-fishing.
Manicouagan Reservoir (Quebec, Canada)
The Manicouagan Reservoir (also known as Lake Manicouagan) is North America’s largest reservoir by volume and the fourth-largest reservoir in the world. This enormous annular lake, which is often called the “Eye of Québec,” has both a natural phenomenon and human intervention to thank for its existence. About 211 million years ago, a meteorite hit Earth and created an impact crater with a 60-mile diameter. For many years after, the crater featured two semicircular lakes. Then, in the 1960s, the construction of the Daniel-Johnson Dam impounded the Manicouagan River. The inauguration of the dam filled the reservoir and forced the two lakes to unite.
At the center of the 481,856-acre reservoir is René-Levasseur Island, which has a greater surface area than Manicouagan. The northern section of the island is designated as the Louis Babel Ecological Reserve and is dominated by 3,084-foot-tall Mount Babel. Scientists have found connections between the metamorphic rocks in the area and the early evolution of the Earth’s crust.