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Streams and Rivers

Streams include many parts headwater, base level, and tributary.

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Streams and Rivers

Do you see the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers?

The farmland in the Central Valley of California is among the most productive in the world. Besides good soil and a mild climate, the region has a lot of water. Streams drain off of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east and join the mighty Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers in the Central Valley. How many of the features that are discussed below can you find in this image?


Streams are bodies of water that have a current; they are in constant motion. Geologists recognize many categories of streams depending on their size, depth, speed, and location. Creeks, brooks, tributaries, bayous, and rivers are all streams. In streams, water always flows downhill, but the form that downhill movement takes varies with rock type, topography, and many other factors. Stream erosion and deposition are extremely important creators and destroyers of landforms.

Rivers are the largest streams. People have used rivers since the beginning of civilization as a source of water, food, transportation, defense, power, recreation, and waste disposal.

With its high mountains, valleys and Pacific coastline, the western United States exhibits nearly all of the features common to rivers and streams. The photos below are from the western states of Montana, California and Colorado.

Parts of a Stream

A stream originates at its source. A source is likely to be in the high mountains where snows collect in winter and melt in summer, or a source might be a spring. A stream may have more than one source.

Two streams come together at a confluence. The smaller of the two streams is a tributary of the larger stream (Figure below).

Confluence of the Yellowstone River and the Gardiner River

The confluence between the Yellowstone River and one of its tributaries, the Gardiner River, in Montana.

The point at which a stream comes into a large body of water, like an ocean or a lake, is called the mouth. Where the stream meets the ocean or lake is an estuary (Figure below).

The mouth of the Klamath River

The mouth of the Klamath River creates an estuary where it flows into the Pacific Ocean in California.

The mix of fresh and salt water where a river runs into the ocean creates a diversity of environments where many different types of organisms create unique ecosystems.

Stages of Streams

As a stream flows from higher elevations, like in the mountains, towards lower elevations, like the ocean, the work of the stream changes. At a stream’s headwaters, often high in the mountains, gradients are steep (Figure below). The stream moves fast and does lots of work eroding the stream bed.

The headwaters of the Roaring Fork River

Headwaters of the Roaring Fork River in Colorado.

As a stream moves into lower areas, the gradient is not as steep. Now the stream does more work eroding the edges of its banks. Many streams develop curves in their channels called meanders (Figure below).

The East River meanders through Crested Butte, Colorado

The East River meanders through Crested Butte, Colorado.

As the river moves onto flatter ground, the stream erodes the outer edges of its banks to carve a floodplain, which is a flat, level area surrounding the stream channel (Figure below).

The Red Rock River floodplain

A green floodplain surrounds the Red Rock River as it flows through Montana.

Base level is where a stream meets a large body of standing water, usually the ocean, but sometimes a lake or pond. Streams work to down cut in their stream beds until they reach base level. The higher the elevation, the farther the stream is from where it will reach base level and the more cutting it has to do. The ultimate base level is sea level.


A divide is a topographically high area that separates a landscape into different water basins (Figure below). Rain that falls on the north side of a ridge flows into the northern drainage basin and rain that falls on the south side flows into the southern drainage basin. On a much grander scale, entire continents have divides, known as continental divides.

Map of the continental divides of North America

(a) The divides of North America. In the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, where does a raindrop falling on the western slope end up? How about on the eastern slope? (b) At Triple Divide Peak in Montana water may flow to the Pacific, the Atlantic, or Hudson Bay depending on where it falls. Can you locate where in the map of North America this peak sits?


  • A moving body of water of any size is a stream.
  • A tributary begins at its headwaters on one side of a divide, comes together with another tributary at a confluence, and empties out at an estuary.
  • Base level is where a large body of water is located; sea level is the ultimate base level.


  1. Very little land is below sea level and all of it does not drain to the sea. Why not?
  2. What happens to two drops of water that fall on opposite sides of a divide?
  3. What happens to a river's floodplain if the river is dammed?

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Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Does the geology shape the river's path or does the river's path shape the geology? Explain.
  2. Where is water speed and weight the greatest? What happens there?
  3. Where is the water speed the slowest? What happens there?
  4. What shape is created by this fast moving water?
  1. What has destabilized the Minnesota River area? What was the result of that?
  2. Why are there waterfalls in some places and ravines in others?
  3. Where does most of the sediment end up?
  4. Why are some sources of sediment considered to be augmented by human activity?

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    base level Where a stream meets a large body of standing water, usually the ocean.
    confluence Where two streams join together.
    continental divide A divide that separates water that goes to different oceans.
    divide A ridge that separates one water basin from another.
    estuary Where a stream meets a lake or, more usually, an ocean. The mixture of fresh and salt water attracts a large number of species and so estuaries have high biodiversity.
    headwaters The location where a stream forms, often high in the mountains.
    meander A bend or curve in a stream channel.
    mouth Where a stream enters a larger body of water such as a lake or an ocean.
    stream A body of moving water, contained within a bank (sides) and bed (bottom).
    tributary The smaller of two streams that join together to make a larger stream.
    floodplain The region near a stream bed where water from the stream overflows during floods.

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