Personal Perspectives

From Sea to Shining Sea

Colorful fireworks go off over the water.
(Terence T.S. Tam from Flickr CC)

Happy (early) Independence Day! For many of us in the United States, the 4th of July is a time to celebrate and reflect on our national heritage. In many ways, the U.S. grew up on the water and remains a maritime nation to this day.

In fact, some of the proudest patriotic traditions have their roots in the sea. One such tradition is the national anthem. On September 14, 1814, an attorney named Francis Scott Key was detained on a British ship four miles off the coast of Baltimore. From that vantage point, he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. As the sun rose over the water at dawn, he was greeted with site of a huge American flag signaling a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. Key exultantly began jotting down the lines of a poem that eventually came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner—the nation’s official anthem.

But, long before those patriotic words were first uttered, long before the “founding fathers” arrived from Europe or dared dream of declaring independence, generations of native peoples had been drawing their lifeblood from the coastal waters of the land we now call the United States. When explorers and eventually colonists began arriving by boat, they spread slowly toward the interior, tracing bodies of water inland and building settlements along iconic rivers like the James, the Potomac, the Hudson, and eventually the Colorado, the Columbia, and the Rio Grande.

As the young nation grew, our coastal waters, lakes, and rivers became more and more indispensable for transportation and industry, as a supplier of natural resources, and as a source of inspiration and recreation. Today, more than half of the U.S. population lives within a coastal watershed, and nearly 60 percent of our gross domestic product is generated in counties that border the ocean or the Great Lakes.

From sea to shining sea, from backyard stream to the mighty Mississippi, the United States is a water nation. We depend on our waterways and coasts. And yet, we don’t always treat them with the respect they deserve. NOAA’s new State of the Coast report gives a snapshot of some of the threats that our waterways face and some of the signs that they need our help, such as dead zones, beach closures, and fish kills.

So this holiday weekend, if you’re headed to the beach to celebrate, tip your hat to the waters that helped form this nation, and remember that there are things you can do to help. Be kind to the beach, and when you get home, take small steps in your everyday routine to protect our waterways.

July 2010