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Aubach (Wiehl) in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany Aubach (Wiehl) nahe dem Weiherdamm in Wildbergerhutte.jpg
Aubach (Wiehl) in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Rocky stream in Italy Potok pod jezerom 1.jpg
Rocky stream in Italy
Frozen stream in Enajarvi, Pori, Finland Frozen stream Enajarvi, Pori.JPG
Frozen stream in Enäjärvi, Pori, Finland
Stream near Montriond in southeastern France Dranse de Montriond 09.jpg
Stream near Montriond in southeastern France

A stream is a continuous body of surface water [1] flowing within the bed and banks of a channel. Depending on its location or certain characteristics, a stream may be referred to by a variety of local or regional names. Long large streams are usually called rivers, while smaller, less voluminous and more intermittent streams are known as streamlets, brooks or creeks.


The flow of a stream is controlled by three inputs – surface runoff (from precipitation or meltwater), daylighted subterranean water, and surfaced groundwater (spring water). The surface and subterranean water are highly variable between periods of rainfall. Groundwater, on the other hand, has a relatively constant input and is controlled more by long-term patterns of precipitation. [2] The stream encompasses surface, subsurface and groundwater fluxes that respond to geological, geomorphological, hydrological and biotic controls. [3]

Streams are important as conduits in the water cycle, instruments in groundwater recharge, and corridors for fish and wildlife migration. The biological habitat in the immediate vicinity of a stream is called a riparian zone. Given the status of the ongoing Holocene extinction, streams play an important corridor role in connecting fragmented habitats and thus in conserving biodiversity. The study of streams and waterways in general is known as surface hydrology and is a core element of environmental geography. [4]


Creek babbling through Benvoulin, Canada, wetlands
Wyming Brook in Sheffield, UK WymingBrook.jpg
Wyming Brook in Sheffield, UK
A small stream in Lake Parramatta, Sydney Parramattastream.jpg
A small stream in Lake Parramatta, Sydney
Stream with low gradient surrounded by natural riparian vegetation (Rhineland-Palatinate) Bach Isenach.jpg
Stream with low gradient surrounded by natural riparian vegetation (Rhineland-Palatinate)
A low level stream in Macon County, Illinois Stevens Creek Tributary A in Macon County, IL.jpg
A low level stream in Macon County, Illinois


A stream smaller than a creek, especially one that is fed by a spring or seep. It is usually small and easily forded. A brook is characterised by its shallowness.


A creek ( /krk/ ) or crick ( /krɪk/ ): [5] [6]


A river is a large natural stream that is much wider and deeper than a creek and not easily fordable, and may be a navigable waterway. [14]


The linear channel between the parallel ridges or bars on a shoreline beach or river floodplain, or between a bar and the shore. Also called a swale.


A tributary is a contributory stream to a larger stream, or a stream which does not reach a static body of water such as a lake, bay or ocean [15] but joins another river (a parent river). Sometimes also called a branch or fork. [16]


A distributary, or a distributary channel, is a stream that branches off and flows away from a main stream channel, and the phenomenon is known as river bifurcation. Distributaries are common features of river deltas, and are often found where a valleyed stream enters wide flatlands or approaches the coastal plains around 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. Common terms for individual river distributaries in English-speaking countries are arm and channel.

Other names

There are a number of regional names for a stream.

Northern America

United Kingdom

Other terminology

A shoal that develops in a stream as sediment is deposited as the current slows or is impeded by wave action at the confluence.
A fork into two or more streams.
A depression created by constant erosion that carries the stream's flow.
The point at which the two streams merge. If the two tributaries are of approximately equal size, the confluence may be called a fork.
Drainage basin
(also known as a watershed in the United States) The area of land where water flows into a stream. A large drainage basin such as the Amazon River contains many smaller drainage basins. [28]
Lands adjacent to the stream that are subject to flooding when a stream overflows its banks. [28]
Headwaters or source
The part of a stream or river proximate to its source. The word is most commonly used in the plural where there is no single point source. [28]
The point on a stream's profile where a sudden change in stream gradient occurs.
The point at which the stream discharges, possibly via an estuary or delta, into a static body of water such as a lake or ocean.
A segment where the water is deeper and slower moving.
A turbulent, fast-flowing stretch of a stream or river.
A segment where the flow is shallower and more turbulent.
A large natural stream, which may be a waterway. [28]
A somewhat smoothly flowing segment of the stream.
The point at which a stream emerges from an underground course through unconsolidated sediments or through caves. A stream can, especially with caves, flow aboveground for part of its course, and underground for part of its course. [28]
Stream bed
The bottom of a stream.
Stream corridor
Stream, its floodplains, and the transitional upland fringe [29]
The water moving through a stream channel. [28] : Stream gauge : A site along the route of a stream or river, used for reference marking or water monitoring. [28]
The river's longitudinal section, or the line joining the deepest point in the channel at each stage from source to mouth.
The channel followed by a stream (a flowing body of water) [30] or the stream itself. [31] [32] [33] In the UK, some aspects of criminal law, such as the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1951, specify that a watercourse includes those rivers which are dry for part of the year. [34] In some jurisdictions, owners of land over which the water flows may have the legal right to use or retain some or much of that water. [35] This right may extend to estuaries, rivers, streams, anabranches [36] and canals. [37]
Waterfall or cascade
The fall of water where the stream goes over a sudden drop called a knickpoint; some knickpoints are formed by erosion when water flows over an especially resistant stratum, followed by one less so. The stream expends kinetic energy in "trying" to eliminate the knickpoint.
Wetted perimeter
The line on which the stream's surface meets the channel walls.


Small tributary stream, Diamond Ridge, Alaska Homesteadcreekflowers.jpg
Small tributary stream, Diamond Ridge, Alaska
Creek in Perisher Ski Resort, Australia Creek in perisher.jpg
Creek in Perisher Ski Resort, Australia

A stream's source depends on the surrounding landscape and its function within larger river networks. While perennial and intermittent streams are typically supplied by smaller upstream waters and groundwater, headwater and ephemeral streams often derive most of their water from precipitation in the form of rain and snow. [38] Most of this precipitated water re-enters the atmosphere by evaporation from soil and water bodies, or by the evapotranspiration of plants. Some of the water proceeds to sink into the earth by infiltration and becomes groundwater, much of which eventually enters streams. Some precipitated water is temporarily locked up in snow fields and glaciers, to be released later by evaporation or melting. The rest of the water flows off the land as runoff, the proportion of which varies according to many factors, such as wind, humidity, vegetation, rock types, and relief. This runoff starts as a thin film called sheet wash, combined with a network of tiny rills, together constituting sheet runoff; when this water is concentrated in a channel, a stream has its birth. Some creeks may start from ponds or lakes.

Stream in Alberta Bluerock Creek, Alberta.jpg
Stream in Alberta



To qualify as a stream, a body of water must be either recurring or perennial. Recurring (intermittent) streams have water in the channel for at least part of the year. A stream of the first order is a stream which does not have any other recurring or perennial stream feeding into it. When two first-order streams come together, they form a second-order stream. When two second-order streams come together, they form a third-order stream. Streams of lower order joining a higher order stream do not change the order of the higher stream.


The gradient of a stream is a critical factor in determining its character and is entirely determined by its base level of erosion. The base level of erosion is the point at which the stream either enters the ocean, a lake or pond, or enters a stretch in which it has a much lower gradient, and may be specifically applied to any particular stretch of a stream.

In geological terms, the stream will erode down through its bed to achieve the base level of erosion throughout its course. If this base level is low, then the stream will rapidly cut through underlying strata and have a steep gradient, and if the base level is relatively high, then the stream will form a flood plain and meander.


Meanders are looping changes of direction of a stream caused by the erosion and deposition of bank materials. These are typically serpentine in form. Typically, over time the meanders gradually migrate downstream. If some resistant material slows or stops the downstream movement of a meander, a stream may erode through the neck between two legs of a meander to become temporarily straighter, leaving behind an arc-shaped body of water termed an oxbow lake or bayou . A flood may also cause a meander to be cut through in this way.


Typically, streams are said to have a particular profile, beginning with steep gradients, no flood plain, and little shifting of channels, eventually evolving into streams with low gradients, wide flood plains, and extensive meanders. The initial stage is sometimes termed a "young" or "immature" stream, and the later state a "mature" or "old" stream.

Stream load

The stream load is defined as the solid matter carried by a stream. Streams can carry sediment, or alluvium. The amount of load it can carry (capacity) as well as the largest object it can carry (competence) are both dependent on the velocity of the stream.

Perennial and non-perennial

Perennial streams

A perennial stream is one which flows continuously all year. [39] :57 Some perennial streams may only have continuous flow in segments of its stream bed year round during years of normal rainfall. [40] [41] Blue-line streams are perennial streams and are marked on topographic maps with a solid blue line.

Non-perennial streams

Ephemeral stream

Generally, streams that flow only during and immediately after precipitation are termed ephemeral. There is no clear demarcation between surface runoff and an ephemeral stream, [39] :58 and some ephemeral streams can be classed as intermittent—flow all but disappearing in the normal course of seasons but ample flow (backups) restoring stream presence such circumstances are documented when stream beds have opened up a path into mines or other underground chambers. [42]

According to official U.S. definitions, the channels of intermittent streams are well-defined, [43] as opposed to ephemeral streams, which may or may not have a defined channel, and rely mainly on storm runoff, as their aquatic bed is above the water table. [44] An ephemeral stream does not have the biological, hydrological, and physical characteristics of a continuous or intermittent stream. [44] The same non-perennial channel might change characteristics from intermittent to ephemeral over its course. [44]

Intermittent or seasonal stream

Australian creek, low in the dry season, carrying little water. The energetic flow of the stream had, in flood, moved finer sediment further downstream. There is a pool to lower right and a riffle to upper left of the photograph. Low creek.jpg
Australian creek, low in the dry season, carrying little water. The energetic flow of the stream had, in flood, moved finer sediment further downstream. There is a pool to lower right and a riffle to upper left of the photograph.
A small, narrow stream flowing down a tiny dell in Pennsylvania. Small stream in a dell.jpg
A small, narrow stream flowing down a tiny dell in Pennsylvania.

Washes can fill up quickly during rains, and there may be a sudden torrent of water after a thunderstorm begins upstream, such as during monsoonal conditions. In the United States, an intermittent or seasonal stream is one that only flows for part of the year and is marked on topographic maps with a line of blue dashes and dots. [39] :57–58 A wash,desert wash, or arroyo is normally a dry streambed in the deserts of the American Southwest, which flows after sufficient rainfall.

In Italy, an intermittent stream is termed a torrent (Italian : torrente). In full flood the stream may or may not be "torrential" in the dramatic sense of the word, but there will be one or more seasons in which the flow is reduced to a trickle or less. Typically torrents have Apennine rather than Alpine sources, and in the summer they are fed by little precipitation and no melting snow. In this case the maximum discharge will be during the spring and autumn.

An intermittent stream can also be called a winterbourne in Britain or a wadi in the Arabic-speaking world. In Australia, an intermittent stream is usually called a creek and marked on topographic maps with a solid blue line.[ citation needed ]

Drainage basins

The extent of land basin drained by a stream is termed its drainage basin (also known in North America as the watershed and, in British English, as a catchment). [45] A basin may also be composed of smaller basins. For instance, the Continental Divide in North America divides the mainly easterly-draining Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean basins from the largely westerly-flowing Pacific Ocean basin. The Atlantic Ocean basin, however, may be further subdivided into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico drainages. (This delineation is termed the Eastern Continental Divide.) Similarly, the Gulf of Mexico basin may be divided into the Mississippi River basin and several smaller basins, such as the Tombigbee River basin. Continuing in this vein, a component of the Mississippi River basin is the Ohio River basin, which in turn includes the Kentucky River basin, and so forth.


Stream crossings are where streams are crossed by roads, pipelines, railways, or any other thing which might restrict the flow of the stream in ordinary or flood conditions. Any structure over or in a stream which results in limitations on the movement of fish or other ecological elements may be an issue.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hydrology</span> Science of the movement, distribution, and quality of water on Earth and other planets

Hydrology is the scientific study of the movement, distribution, and management of water on Earth and other planets, including the water cycle, water resources, and environmental watershed sustainability. A practitioner of hydrology is called a hydrologist. Hydrologists are scientists studying earth or environmental science, civil or environmental engineering, and physical geography. Using various analytical methods and scientific techniques, they collect and analyze data to help solve water related problems such as environmental preservation, natural disasters, and water management.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Drainage basin</span> Area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet

A drainage basin is an area of land where all flowing surface water converges to a single point, such as a river mouth, or flows into another body of water, such as a lake or ocean. A basin is separated from adjacent basins by a perimeter, the drainage divide, made up of a succession of elevated features, such as ridges and hills. A basin may consist of smaller basins that merge at river confluences, forming a hierarchical pattern.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fluvial processes</span> Processes associated with rivers and streams

In geography and geology, fluvial processes are associated with rivers and streams and the deposits and landforms created by them. When the stream or rivers are associated with glaciers, ice sheets, or ice caps, the term glaciofluvial or fluvioglacial is used.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wadi</span> River valley, especially a dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain

Wadi, alternatively wād, North African Arabic Oued, is the Arabic term traditionally referring to a valley. In some instances, it may refer to a wet (ephemeral) riverbed that contains water only when heavy rain occurs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">River source</span> Starting point of a river

The headwaters of a river or stream is the farthest place in that river or stream from its estuary or downstream confluence with another river, as measured along the course of the river. It is also known as a river's source.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thalweg</span> Line of lowest elevation in a watercourse or valley

In geography and fluvial geomorphology, a thalweg or talweg is the line of lowest elevation within a valley or watercourse.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Body of water</span> Any significant accumulation of water, generally on a planets surface

A body of water or waterbody is any significant accumulation of water on the surface of Earth or another planet. The term most often refers to oceans, seas, and lakes, but it includes smaller pools of water such as ponds, wetlands, or more rarely, puddles. A body of water does not have to be still or contained; rivers, streams, canals, and other geographical features where water moves from one place to another are also considered bodies of water.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arroyo (creek)</span> Dry creek or stream bed with flow after rain

An arroyo, also called a wash, is a dry creek, stream bed or gulch that temporarily or seasonally fills and flows after sufficient rain. Flash floods are common in arroyos following thunderstorms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big Sandy River (Arizona)</span> River in Arizona

The Big Sandy River is both an intermittent and perennial stream in Mohave and La Paz counties in northwestern Arizona in the United States. It begins where Cottonwood Wash and Trout Creek converge in the Hualapai Indian Reservation east of U.S. Route 93 then flows past Wikieup south of Kingman. The Big Sandy River then passes the Signal Ghost Town Site, meanders through the Arrastra Mountain Wilderness, and joins the Santa Maria River in Southern Mohave County to form the Bill Williams River. The Bill Williams River then empties into Alamo Lake State Park. The Big Sandy River is 55.7 miles (89.6 km) long.

In water-related science and engineering, there are two similar but distinct definitions in use for the word drawdown:

A reach is a segment of a stream, river, or arm of the sea, usually suggesting a straight, level, uninterrupted stretch.

Streamflow, or channel runoff, is the flow of water in streams and other channels, and is a major element of the water cycle. It is one component of the movement of water from the land to waterbodies, the other component being surface runoff. Water flowing in channels comes from surface runoff from adjacent hillslopes, from groundwater flow out of the ground, and from water discharged from pipes. The discharge of water flowing in a channel is measured using stream gauges or can be estimated by the Manning equation. The record of flow over time is called a hydrograph. Flooding occurs when the volume of water exceeds the capacity of the channel.

Intermittent, temporary or seasonal rivers or streams cease to flow every year or at least twice every five years. Such rivers drain large arid and semi-arid areas, covering approximately a third of the earth's surface. The extent of temporary rivers is increasing, as many formerly perennial rivers are becoming temporary because of increasing water demand, particularly for irrigation. Despite inconsistent water flow, intermittent rivers are considered land-forming agents in arid regions, as they are agents of significant deposition and erosion during flood events. The combination of dry crusted soils and the highly erosive energy of the rain cause sediment resuspension and transport to the coastal areas. They are among the aquatic habitats most altered by human activities. During the summer even under no flow conditions the point sources are still active such as the wastewater effluents, resulting in nutrients and organic pollutants accumulating in the sediment. Sediment operates as a pollution inventory and pollutants are moved to the next basin with the first flush. Their vulnerability is intensified by the conflict between water use demand and aquatic ecosystem conservation. Advanced modelling tools have been developed to better describe intermittent flow dynamic changes such as the tempQsim model.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Perennial stream</span> Type of river

A perennial stream is a stream that has continuous flow of surface water throughout the year in at least parts of its catchment during seasons of normal rainfall, as opposed to one whose flow is intermittent. In the absence of irregular, prolonged or extreme drought, a perennial stream is a watercourse, or segment, element or emerging body of water which continually delivers groundwater. For example, an artificial disruption of stream, variability in flow or stream selection associated with the activity in hydropower installations, do not affect this status. Perennial streams do not include stagnant water, reservoirs, cutoff lakes and ponds that persist throughout the year. All other streams, or parts of them, should be considered seasonal rivers or lakes. The stream can cycle from intermittent to perpetual through multiple iterations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Surface water</span> Water located on top of the Earths surface such as rivers, creeks, and wetlands

Surface water is water located on top of land forming terrestrial (inland) waterbodies, and may also be referred to as blue water, opposed to the seawater and waterbodies like the ocean.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Urban runoff</span> Surface runoff of rainwater created by urbanization

Urban runoff is surface runoff of rainwater, landscape irrigation, and car washing created by urbanization. Impervious surfaces are constructed during land development. During rain, storms and other precipitation events, these surfaces, along with rooftops, carry polluted stormwater to storm drains, instead of allowing the water to percolate through soil. This causes lowering of the water table and flooding since the amount of water that remains on the surface is greater. Most municipal storm sewer systems discharge stormwater, untreated, to streams, rivers and bays. This excess water can also make its way into people's properties through basement backups and seepage through building wall and floors.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">River</span> Natural flowing watercourse

A river is a natural flowing watercourse, usually freshwater, flowing towards an ocean, sea, lake or another river. In some cases, a river flows into the ground and becomes dry at the end of its course without reaching another body of water. Small rivers can be referred to using names such as creek, brook, rivulet, and rill. There are no official definitions for the generic term river as applied to geographic features, although in some countries or communities a stream is defined by its size. Many names for small rivers are specific to geographic location; examples are "run" in some parts of the United States, "burn" in Scotland and northeast England, and "beck" in northern England. Sometimes a river is defined as being larger than a creek, but not always: the language is vague.

A head cut, in stream geomorphology, is an erosional feature of some intermittent and perennial streams. Headcuts and headward erosion are hallmarks of unstable expanding drainage features such as actively eroding gullies. Headcuts are a type of knickpoint that, as the name indicates, occur at the head of a channel.

Poso Creek or Posey Creek is an 87.9-mile (141.5 km) intermittent stream in Kern County, California.

Vulnerable waters refer to geographically isolated wetlands (GIWs) and to ephemeral and intermittent streams. Ephemeral and intermittent streams are seasonally flowing and are located in headwater position. They are the outer and smallest stems of hydrological networks. Isolated wetlands are located outside floodplain and show poor surface connection to tributaries or floodplains. Geographically isolated wetlands encompass saturated depressions that are the result of fluvial, aeolian, glacial and/or coastal geomorphological processes. They may be natural landforms or the result of human interventions. Vulnerable waters represent the major proportion of river networks.


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