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Little Danube in Slovakia - an arm of the Danube Maly Dunaj.jpg
Little Danube in Slovakia - an arm of the Danube
The Else and Hase distributaries of the Hase at Melle, Germany Bifurkation-Melle.JPG
The Else and Hase distributaries of the Hase at Melle, Germany
A seasonal distributary of the Kaveri river on the Kaveri delta, near Nannilam, India NearNannilam.jpg
A seasonal distributary of the Kaveri river on the Kaveri delta, near Nannilam, India

A distributary, or a distributary channel, is a stream that branches off and flows away from a main stream channel. Distributaries are a common feature of river deltas. The phenomenon is known as river bifurcation. The opposite of a distributary is a tributary. Distributaries are found where a stream nears a lake or an ocean. They can also occur inland, on alluvial fans, or where a tributary stream bifurcates as it nears its confluence with a larger stream. In some cases, a minor distributary can divert so much water from the main channel that it can become the main route.


Common terms to name individual river distributaries in English-speaking countries are arm and channel. These terms may refer to a distributary that does not rejoin the channel from which it has branched (e.g., the North, Middle, and South Arms of the Fraser River, or the West Channel of the Mackenzie River), or to one that does (e.g. Annacis Channel and Annieville Channel of the Fraser River, separated by Annacis Island).

In Australia, the term anabranch is used to refer to a distributary that diverts from the main course of the river and rejoins it later. In North America an anabranch is called a braided stream.

North America

Atchafalaya River Atchafalaya River.png
Atchafalaya River

In Louisiana, the Atchafalaya River is an important distributary of the Mississippi River. Because the Atchafalaya takes a steeper route to the Gulf of Mexico than does the Mississippi, over several decades the Atchafalaya has captured more and more of the Mississippi's flow, after the Mississippi meandered into the Red River of the South. The Old River Control Structure, a dam which regulates the outflow from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya, was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963. The dam is intended to prevent the Atchafalaya from capturing the main flow of the Mississippi and stranding the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. [1]

In British Columbia, Canada, the Fraser River has numerous sloughs and side-channels which may be defined as distributaries. This river's final stretch has three main distributaries: the North Arm and the South Arm, and a few smaller ones adjoining them.

Examples of inland distributaries:

South America

The Casiquiare canal is an inland distributary of the upper Orinoco, which flows southward into the Rio Negro, forming a unique natural canal between the Orinoco and Amazon river systems. It is the largest river on the planet that links two major river systems.


Satellite image of part of the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta Maas Delta1.jpg
Satellite image of part of the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta


Eastern Asia

The Huai River in China splits into three streams. The main stream passes through the Sanhe Sluice, goes out of the Sanhe river, and enters the Yangtze River through Baoying Lake and Gaoyou Lake. On the east bank of Hongze Lake, another stream goes out of Gaoliangjian Gate and enters the Yellow Sea at the port of Bidan through Subei Guan'gai Zongqu, the main irrigation channel of Northern Jiangsu); its total length is 168 kilometers. The third stream leaves the Erhe lock on the northeast bank of Hongze Lake, passes the Huaishuhe River to the north of Lianyungang city, and flows into Haizhou Bay through the Hongkou.

Indian Subcontinent


See History of the Nile Delta.


Delta of Papua New Guinea's Fly River Fly River Delta-txu-oclc-6552576-sc54-4.jpg
Delta of Papua New Guinea's Fly River


A number of the rivers that flow inland from Australia's Great Dividing Range form distributaries, most of which flow only intermittently during times of high river levels and end in shallow lakes or simply peter out in the deserts. Yarriambiack Creek, which flows from the Wimmera River into Lake Coorong, and Tyrrell Creek, which flows from the Avoca River into Lake Tyrrell, are two distributaries in Victoria. The Narran River flows from the Balonne River in Queensland into Narran Lake in New South Wales.

Papua New Guinea

Many of Papua New Guinea's major rivers flow into the Gulf of Papua through marshy, low-lying country, allowing for wide, many-branched deltas. These include the Fly River, which splits into three major and several minor rivers close to its mouth. The Bamu River splits into several channels close to its mouth, among them the Bebea, Bina, Dibiri, and Aramia. The Kikori River also splits into a multitude of channels as it crosses the plains close to the Gulf of Papua. The Purari River splits into three major channels as it approaches its mouth.

New Zealand

New Zealand's second-longest river, the Clutha River, splits into two arms, the Matau and the Koua, some 10 kilometres from the South Island's Pacific Coast. A large island, Inch Clutha, lies between the two arms. Many of the rivers crossing the Canterbury Plains in the central South Island are braided rivers, and several of these split into separate branches before reaching the coast. Notable among these is the Rangitata River, the two arms of which are separated by the low-lying Rangitata Island.

See also

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Tributary Stream or river that flows into a main stem river or lake

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River delta Silt deposition landform at the mouth of a river

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Red River of the South Major river in the southern United States

The Red River, or sometimes the Red River of the South, is a major river in the Southern United States. It was named for the red-bed country of its watershed. It is one of several rivers with that name. Although it was once a tributary of the Mississippi River, the Red River is now a tributary of the Atchafalaya River, a distributary of the Mississippi that flows separately into the Gulf of Mexico. It is connected to the Mississippi River by the Old River Control Structure.

Fraser River river in British Columbia, Canada

The Fraser River is the longest river within British Columbia, Canada, rising at Fraser Pass near Blackrock Mountain in the Rocky Mountains and flowing for 1,375 kilometres (854 mi), into the Strait of Georgia at the city of Vancouver. It is the 11th longest river in Canada. The river's annual discharge at its mouth is 112 cubic kilometres (27 cu mi) or 3,550 cubic metres per second (125,000 cu ft/s), and it discharges 20 million tons of sediment into the ocean.

Atchafalaya River river in the United States of America

The Atchafalaya River is a 137-mile-long (220 km) distributary of the Mississippi River and Red River in south central Louisiana in the United States. It flows south, just west of the Mississippi River, and is the fifth largest river in North America, by discharge. The name "Atchafalaya" comes from Choctaw for "long river", from hachcha, "river", and falaya, "long".

Feather River river in the United States of America

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River Colne, Hertfordshire river in Hertfordshire, England

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Tule River river in the United States of America

The Tule River, also called Rio de San Pedro or Rio San Pedro, is a 71.4-mile (114.9 km) river in Tulare County in the U.S. state of California. The river originates in the Sierra Nevada east of Porterville and consists of three forks, North, Middle and South. The North Fork and Middle Fork meet above Springville. The South Fork meets the others at Lake Success. Downstream of Success Dam, the river flows west through Porterville. The river used to empty into Tulare Lake, but its waters have been diverted for irrigation. However, the river does reach Tulare Lake during floods. Tulare Lake is the terminal sink of an endorheic basin that historically also received the Kaweah and Kern Rivers as well as southern distributaries of the Kings.

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Atchafalaya Basin largest wetland and swamp in the United States

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Kalahari Basin african endorheic basin

The Kalahari Basin also known as the Kalahari Depression, Barotse Basin or the Kalahari-Okavango Basin, is an endorrheic basin and large lowland area covering over 2.5 million km2 covering most of Botswana and parts of Namibia, South Africa, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The outstanding physical feature in the basin, and occupying the centre, is the large Kalahari Desert.

Mississippi River System drainage basin of the river Mississippi

The Mississippi River System, also referred to as the Western Rivers, is a mostly riverine network of the United States which includes the Mississippi River and connecting waterways. The Mississippi River is the largest drainage basin in the United States. In the United States, the Mississippi drains about forty-one percent of the country's rivers.

Kaweah River river in the United States of America

The Kaweah River is a river draining the southern Sierra Nevada in Tulare County, California in the United States. Fed primarily by high elevation snowmelt along the Great Western Divide, the Kaweah begins as four forks in Sequoia National Park, where the watershed is noted for its alpine scenery and its dense concentrations of giant sequoias, the largest trees on Earth. It then flows in a southwest direction to Lake Kaweah – the only major reservoir on the river – and into the San Joaquin Valley, where it diverges into multiple channels across an alluvial plain around Visalia. With its Middle Fork headwaters starting at almost 13,000 feet (4,000 m) above sea level, the river has a vertical drop of nearly two and a half miles (4.0 km) on its short run to the San Joaquin Valley, making it one of the steepest river drainages in the United States. Although the main stem of the Kaweah is only 33.6 miles (54.1 km) long, its total length including headwaters and lower branches is nearly 100 miles (160 km).

River bifurcation the forking of a river into its distributaries

River bifurcation occurs when a river flowing in a single stream separates into two or more separate streams which continue downstream. Some rivers form complex networks of distributaries, especially in their deltas. If the streams eventually merge again or empty into the same body of water, then the bifurcation forms a river island.

Anabranch A section of a river or stream that diverts from the main channel and rejoins it downstream.

An anabranch is a section of a river or stream that diverts from the main channel or stem of the watercourse and rejoins the main stem downstream. Local anabranches can be the result of small islands in the watercourse. In larger anabranches, the flow can diverge for a distance of several kilometers before rejoining the main channel.

Surma-Meghna River System river in India

The Surma-Meghna River System is a river complex in the Indian Subcontinent, one of the three that form the Ganges Delta, the largest on earth. It rises in the Manipur Hills of northeast India as the Barak River and flows west becoming the Surma River and then flows south as the Meghna River, a total of 946 kilometres (588 mi) of which 669 kilometres (416 mi) are within Bangladesh, to the Bay of Bengal.

Wax Lake durodgarm