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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

A stream is a body of water [1] with surface water flowing within the bed and banks of a channel. The flow of a stream is controlled by three inputs - surface water, subsurface water and groundwater. The surface and subsurface 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]


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.

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]


A rocky creek in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, US SpearfishCreek.jpg
A rocky creek in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, US
Creek babbling through Benvoulin, Canada, wetlands
Wyming Brook in Sheffield, UK WymingBrook.jpg
Wyming Brook in Sheffield, UK
Brook near the Bay of Fundy, Canada Brook.jpg
Brook near the Bay of Fundy, Canada
A small stream in Lake Parramatta, Sydney Parramattastream.jpg
A small stream in Lake Parramatta, Sydney
A low level stream in Macon County, Illinois, US Stevens Creek Tributary A in Macon County, IL.jpg
A low level stream in Macon County, Illinois, US
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.
Creek ( /krk/ ) or crick ( /krɪk/ ) [5] [6]
A large natural stream, which may be a 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 contributory stream, or a stream which does not reach a static body of water such as a lake or ocean, [15] but joins another river (a parent river). Sometimes also called a branch or fork. [16]

Other names

There are a number of regional names for a stream.

United Kingdom

North America

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]
Gaging station
A site along the route of a stream or river, used for reference marking or water monitoring. [28]
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 spring from which the stream originates, or other point of origin of a 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]
The river's longitudinal section, or the line joining the deepest point in the channel at each stage from source to mouth.
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, US Homesteadcreekflowers.jpg
Small tributary stream, Diamond Ridge, Alaska, US
Creek in Perisher Ski Resort, Australia Creek in perisher.jpg
Creek in Perisher Ski Resort, Australia

Streams typically derive most of their water from precipitation in the form of rain and snow. Most of this 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 Southbury, Connecticut, US Audubon Society long exposure.JPG
Stream in Southbury, Connecticut, US



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. Thus, if a first-order stream joins a second-order stream, it remains a second-order stream. It is not until a second-order stream combines with another second-order stream that it becomes a third-order 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. However, a stream may meander for some distance before falling into a "young" stream condition.

Stream load

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.

Intermittent and ephemeral streams

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 perennial stream is one which flows continuously all year. [30] :57 Some perennial streams may only have continuous flow in segments of its stream bed year round during years of normal rainfall. [31] [32]

Blue-line streams are perennial streams and are marked on topographic maps with a solid blue line.

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, [30] :58 and some ephemeral streams can be classed as intermittentflow all but disappearing in the normal course of seasons but ample flow (backups) restoring stream presencesuch circumstances are documented when stream beds have opened up a path into mines or other underground chambers. [33]

Intermittent stream

or seasonal stream

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. [30] :57–58 A wash or desert wash is normally a dry streambed in the deserts of the American Southwest which flows only after significant rainfall. 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. These flash floods often catch travelers by surprise. An intermittent stream can also be called an arroyo in Latin America, a winterbourne in Britain, or a wadi in the Arabic-speaking world.

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. However, there are also glacial torrents with a different seasonal regime.

In Australia, an intermittent stream is usually called a creek and marked on topographic maps with a solid blue line.

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). [34] 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

Hydrology The 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.

Drainage basin Area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet

A drainage basin is any area of land where precipitation collects and drains off into a common outlet, such as into a river, bay, or other body of water. The drainage basin includes all the surface water from rain runoff, snowmelt, hail, sleet and nearby streams that run downslope towards the shared outlet, as well as the groundwater underneath the earth's surface. Drainage basins connect into other drainage basins at lower elevations in a hierarchical pattern, with smaller sub-drainage basins, which in turn drain into another common outlet.

Fluvial processes 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.

Wadi River valley, especially a dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain

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

Oxbow lake U-shaped lake formed by a cut-off meander of a river

An oxbow lake is a U-shaped lake that forms when a wide meander of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water. In south Texas, oxbows left by the Rio Grande are called resacas. Such lakes are also found in India. The word "oxbow" can also refer to a U-shaped bend in a river or stream, whether or not it is cut off from the main stream.

Body of water Any significant accumulation of water, generally on a planets surface

A body of water or waterbody is any significant accumulation of water, generally on a planet's surface. 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.


A hydrograph is a graph showing the rate of flow (discharge) versus time past a specific point in a river, channel, or conduit carrying flow. The rate of flow is typically expressed in cubic meters or cubic feet per second . It can also refer to a graph showing the volume of water reaching a particular outfall, or location in a sewerage network. Graphs are commonly used in the design of sewerage, more specifically, the design of surface water sewerage systems and combined sewers.

River rejuvenation

In geomorphology a river is said to be rejuvenated when it is eroding the landscape in response to a lowering of its base level. The process is often a result of a sudden fall in sea level or the rise of land. The disturbance enables a rise in the river's potential energy, increasing its riverbed erosion rate. The erosion occurs as a means for the river to adjust to its new base level.

Knickpoint the point on a streams profile where a sudden change in stream gradient occurs.

In geomorphology, a knickpoint or nickpoint is part of a river or channel where there is a sharp change in channel slope, such as a waterfall or lake. Knickpoints reflect different conditions and processes on the river, often caused by previous erosion due to glaciation or variance in lithology. In the cycle of erosion model, knickpoints advance one cycle upstream, or inland, replacing an older cycle.

Plunge pool Depression at the base of a waterfall created by the erosional force of falling water and rocks where it lands

A plunge pool is a deep depression in a stream bed at the base of a waterfall or shut-in. It is created by the erosional forces of cascading water on the rocks at formation's base where the water impacts. The term may refer to the water occupying the depression, or the depression itself.

Streamflow, or channel runoff, is the flow of water in streams, rivers, and other channels, and is a major element of the water cycle. It is one component of the runoff 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.

Johnson Creek (Willamette River tributary) Willamette River tributary in Oregon

Johnson Creek is a 25-mile (40 km) tributary of the Willamette River in the Portland metropolitan area of the U.S. state of Oregon. Part of the drainage basin of the Columbia River, its catchment consists of 54 square miles (140 km2) of mostly urban land occupied by about 180,000 people as of 2012. Passing through the cities of Gresham, Portland, and Milwaukie, the creek flows generally west from the foothills of the Cascade Range through sediments deposited by glacial floods on a substrate of basalt. Though polluted, it is free-flowing along its main stem and provides habitat for salmon and other migrating fish.

A perennial stream or perennial river is a stream or river (channel) that has continuous flow in parts of its stream bed all year round during years of normal rainfall. "Perennial" streams are contrasted with "intermittent" streams which normally cease flowing for weeks or months each year, and with "ephemeral" channels that flow only for hours or days following rainfall. During unusually dry years, a normally perennial stream may cease flowing, becoming intermittent for days, weeks, or months depending on severity of the drought. The boundaries between perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral channels are not defined, and subject to a variety of identification methods adopted by local governments, academics, and others with a need to classify stream-flow permanence.

San Juan Creek river in United States of America

San Juan Creek, also called the San Juan River, is a 29-mile (47 km) long stream in Orange County, California, draining a watershed of 133.9 square miles (347 km2). Its mainstem begins in the southern Santa Ana Mountains in the Cleveland National Forest. It winds west and south through San Juan Canyon, and is joined by Arroyo Trabuco as it passes through San Juan Capistrano. It flows into the Pacific Ocean at Doheny State Beach. San Juan Canyon provides a major part of the route for California State Route 74.

Urban runoff Surface runoff of rainwater created by urbanization

Urban runoff is surface runoff of precipitation created by urbanization. This runoff is a major source of flooding and water pollution in urban communities worldwide.

River 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 stream, 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.

GSSHA is a two-dimensional, physically based watershed model developed by the Engineer Research and Development Center of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. It simulates surface water and groundwater hydrology, erosion and sediment transport. The GSSHA model is used for hydraulic engineering and research, and is on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) list of hydrologic models accepted for use in the national flood insurance program for flood hydrograph estimation. Input is best prepared by the Watershed Modeling System interface, which effectively links the model with geographic information systems (GIS).

Check dam small dam

A check dam is a small, sometimes temporary, dam constructed across a swale, drainage ditch, or waterway to counteract erosion by reducing water flow velocity. Check dams themselves are not a type of new technology; rather, they are an ancient technique dating from the second century A.D. Check dams are typically, though not always, implemented in a system of several dams situated at regular intervals across the area of interest.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to hydrology:

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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