Flowing with a River

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As far as our Water Science site is concerned, they are pretty much interchangeable. I tend to think of creeks as the smallest of the three, with streams being in the middle, and rivers being the largest. Of course, not all runoff ends up in rivers.

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Some of it evaporates on the journey downslope, can be diverted and used by people for their uses, and can even be lapped up by thirsty animals. Rivers flow through valleys in the landscape with ridges of higher land separating the valleys. A river forms from water moving from a higher elevation to a lower elevation, all due to gravity. In most landscapes the land is not perfectly flat—it slopes downhill in some direction. Flowing water finds its way downhill initially as small creeks.

As small creeks flow downhill they merge to form larger streams and rivers.

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Rivers eventually end up flowing into the oceans. If people have built a dam to hinder a river's flow, the lake that forms is a reservoir. The river serves many purposes, from drinking water to wildlife habitat to a recreation spot for the whole city. Credit: National Park Service. The phrase "river of life" is not just a random set of words. Rivers have been essential not only to humans, but to all life on earth, ever since life began. Plants and animals grow and congregate around rivers simply because water is so essential to all life.

It might seem that rivers happen to run through many cities in the world, but it is not that the rivers go through the city, but rather that the city was built and grew up around the river. Are rivers one of your favorite places?


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Large rivers don't start off large at all, but are the result of much smaller tributaries, creeks, and streams combining, just as tiny capillaries in your body merge to form larger blood-carrying arteries and veins. The mighty river featured in this image is called the Yarlung Tsangpo as it courses through the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. Credit : NASA.

Rivers, Streams, and Creeks

It is also true that most of the water flowing in rivers comes from precipitation runoff from the surrounding landscape watershed. But, the water in a river doesn't all come from surface runoff. If a river bank happens to cut into this saturated layer, as most rivers do, then water will seep out of the ground into the river. Look at the diagram above.

The ground below the water table, the aquifer the purple area , is saturated, whereas the ground above the pink area is not. Saturated, water-bearing materials often exist in horizontal layers beneath the land surface. Since rivers, in time, may cut vertically into the ground as they flow as the river cuts into the purple section in the diagram , the water-bearing layers of rock can become exposed on the river banks. Thus, some of the water in rivers is attributed to flow coming out of the banks.

This is why even during droughts there is usually some water in streams. Like everything else on and in the Earth, water obeys the rules of gravity and tries to get to the center of the Earth did you imagine that every molecule in your body is trying to do this, also? So, the water in rivers flows downhill, with the ultimate goal of flowing into the oceans, which are at sea level. River water may end up in a lake or reservoir, in a pipe aimed at Farmer Joe's corn stalks, in a local swimming pool, or in your drinking glass, but much of it eventually ends up back in the oceans, where it rejoins the water cycle, which is ALWAYS in progress.

Endpoint of the Colorado River, Mexico. Less than 80 years ago, the mighty Colorado River flowed unhindered from northern Colorado through the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Mexico before pouring into the Gulf of California. But as this NASA Earth Observatory satellite photo from September shows, irrigation and urban water needs now prevent the river from reaching its final destination.

Rather, the Colorado River just disappears into the desert sands. The Colorado River can be seen in dark blue at the topmost central part of this image. The river comes to an end just south of the multicolored patchwork of farmlands in the northwestern corner of the image and then fans out at the base of the Sierra de Juarez Mountains.

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Only about 10 percent of all the water that flows into the Colorado River makes it into Mexico and most of that is used by the Mexican people for farming. It provides a ready source of data for countries working to meet international sustainable management goals, which include protection for freshwater systems. Already, the increased awareness of the value of free-flowing rivers is leading to policy changes, WWF notes. Last year, Mexico established water reserves in about river basins—water reserved for nature and not stored behind dams. Bernhard would like to see more such decisions.

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