What Are Headwater Streams?

Reader Contribution by Earth Gauge

Headwater streams are small streams or tributaries that carry water from the upper reaches of a watershed to a river.  They are the beginnings of an interconnected stream network that eventually combine and form bigger streams and rivers downstream.  Many of these headwaters are fed by rainfall, runoff and underground waters, and may not flow year-round.  Even though they often appear insignificant and some are so small you could jump across them, they are very important to downstream river, lake and estuary ecosystems. Among other benefits, headwater streams retain flood waters and reduce the amount of pollutants making their way to waters downstream.

Viewer Tip: A stream is a stream, no matter how small it is or how frequently it flows.  A river can be fed by different types of headwater streams: some flow year-round, some flow several months during the year and some flow at the Earth’s surface only periodically.  Just because a stream is small and does not flow year-round doesn’t mean it can’t have a big impact on the health of streams or rivers downstream.  Protecting all kinds of waters upstream will help protect waters downstream.  Learn more about different types of streams and their importance.

(Sources: EPA, “Little Streams, Big Impact,” www.epa.gov/sciencematters/january2011/little-stream.htm; Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, “Headwater Streams.”)

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