Here's How Rivers Are Actually Formed
A rive flowing through a forest.
1. Rivers are formed in valleys between ridges of land.
2 Most of the water in a river comes from runoff after a rainfall.
3 There is water that is thousands of years old resting in aquifers deep beneath the Earth’s surface.
By definition, a river is “a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another such stream.”-Lexico.com Rivers are an important part of nature’s water cycle, and are home to natural resources that both humans and animals depend on. Rivers carry water, but they also transport other contents. According to National Geographic, scientists estimate that if you measured all the salt that rivers carry from the land out to the seas, you would find it to be about 3.6 billion metric tons (four billion tons). That’s a lot! Sometimes it can seem like your favorite river never changes and has been there since the dawn of time. At other times, you may witness a river come and go with the seasons. Rivers may have a lifespan, although it can be a very long one, and they are formed in nature as a result of large forces at work in the environment.
Volcanoes, runoff, and groundwater all play a part in how a river is formed.
Volcanoes: The Origins Of Water
Lava flow in Hawaii Volcano National Park. Image credit: Robert Crow/Shutterstock.com
It may come as a surprise to you, but volcanoes are actually responsible for increasing the volume of water on Earth. Scientists believe that Primordial Earth, (Earth in its very early stages), was an incandescent globe of magma. When water from inside the magma was released, this started to cool the Earth’s roasting hot atmosphere. Once temperatures cooled enough, water could stay on the Earth’s surface as a liquid, rather than evaporate. Amazingly, this was the origin of water on our planet. To this day, volcanoes continue to be the source of additional water on Earth’s surface and in the ground.
An important part of where you may find water on Earth involves the water cycle.
When water on the Earth’s surface, such as that found in lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans, evaporates, it creates clouds in the air. Once the density of water in the clouds becomes high enough, the water is released as rain. The rain returns water to the Earth, and the cycle begins again. Of course, some water is used by people and animals along the way, and does not remain in this cycle, but this cyclical flow of water in our environment is generally what maintains our water on Earth. This is called the water cycle.
When it comes to rivers specifically, most of the water found in them originates as runoff that trickles and flows in from the land beside the river following rainfalls. This runoff is formed by rain and groundwater.
Moving From Higher Elevations To Lower Elevations
A river in the Himalayan Mountain region. Image credit: Ritam-Dmitri Melgunov/Shutterstock.com
Generally speaking, water moves from higher elevations to lower elevations on Earth. This is a rather fancy way of saying that water flows downhill (but not always South). This process is initiated in small creeks, which meander through landscapes and merge to create bigger streams and rivers. These rivers eventually flow out to the ocean.
The location where water begins to flow in a river is called its headwaters. If you have a river running near your home, you may not have noticed that you live in a valley, but you do. Rivers form and flow between ridges in landscapes, with higher land on either side. Sometimes these ridges are quite noticeable, such as those that form the edges of the Grand Canyon, and at other times they can be more subtle to the eye. The land between the ridges that collects rain and other precipitation is called a drainage basin, or a watershed.
Of course, not all of the runoff that hits the ground ends up flowing down the watershed into rivers. Some rain is lapped up by animals looking for a refreshing drink, and some is used by us humans for washing, cooking, drinking, and creating energy, among other things.
In addition, some water ends up soaking into the ground after a rainfall, and it fills underwater aquifers. After it rains, water flows horizontally and downward over permeable layers of rock and dirt. Most rainfall falls back into rivers one way or another, however.
The Role Of Groundwater
A groundwater well. Image credit: TS Photographer/Shutterstock
As anyone with access to a well will tell you, the water we can see on Earth is not the only water we actually have. Underground you can find very large amounts of water in aquifers, all around our planet. In fact, it is said that there is far more water below the Earth’s surface than there can be found in our rivers and lakes. Scientists say there is about one thousand times more groundwater on Earth than fresh water above the surface.
Sometimes groundwater is relatively easy to access, and is not located that far down. Hydrologists claim that some groundwater is just hours old following a rainfall. The deeper you go, however, the older the water can be. At a moderate depth, it is said that groundwater may actually be about 100 years old, and if you go far enough down, the water underground can even be many thousands of years old.
Groundwater can add to rivers after a heavy rainfall. It does this when it “overflows” onto the Earth’s surface. When the Earth becomes so saturated with water that water rises up from aquifers that are too full, this is technically not called runoff. It is groundwater that is seeping out, which will flow down the watershed to join the rivers.
Why Rivers Are Essential To Life
Rivers have supported the growth of human settlements. Krasnogorsk and Moscow river with Pavshinsky bridge. Image credit: Katalinks/Shutterstock.com
We need rivers in order to live, and so do many other species. Humans have built their homes and civilizations around rivers since the beginning of time because rivers offer us a source of drinking water, a way to clean ourselves, and a source of different types of food. Animals found in the river can nourish us. Predators can hunt their prey that comes to riverbanks in order to drink and eat. Rivers have enabled us to build industries and towns by harnessing hydropower and by moving goods along the water’s surface from one location to another. Irrigation, waste disposal, and power generation have all been made possible, for better or for worse, by the presence of rivers in our societies. Without rivers, we would not have developed as have, as the human race.
Grand Canyon Colorado River
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY VOCABULARY
A river is a ribbon-like body of water that flows downhill from the force of gravity. A river can be wide and deep, or shallow enough for a person to wade across. A flowing body of water that is smaller than a river is called a stream, creek, or brook. Some rivers flow year-round, while others flow only during certain seasons or when there has been a lot of rain. The largest rivers can be thousands of miles long. The erosional power of rivers can form geologic wonders like the Grand Canyon.
All rivers have a starting point where water begins its flow. This source is called a headwater. The headwater can come from rainfall or snowmelt in mountains, but it can also bubble up from groundwater or form at the edge of a lake or large pond. The other end of a river is called its mouth, where water empties into a larger body of water, such as a lake or ocean. Along the way, rivers may pass through wetlands where plants slow down the water and filter out pollutants.
The water that flows in rivers is fresh, meaning that it contains less than one percent salt. However, rivers still carry and distribute important salts and nutrients to support plant and animal life. For this reason, some of the most biodiverse habitats on our planet can be found around rivers. Collectively, scientists estimate that all the rivers in the world carry about 3.6 billion metric tons (four billion tons) of salt from land to the ocean each year.
Rivers can also form what is called an estuary, where salty seawater mixes with fresh water near the river mouth to form “brackish water.” The Hudson River in New York, U.S., is an example of an estuary where brackish water extends more than 241 kilometers (150 miles) upstream.
Fast-flowing rivers carry pebbles, sand, and silt. As the river begins to slow down—as in a wetland, at the outside of a bend, or where the river widens, such as at the mouth—these sediments sink and build up to form deltas. Rivers that overflow their banks also deposit sediment in the surrounding flood plain. These deltas and floodplains are highly fertile agricultural zones that offer tremendous value to the surrounding people. In Egypt, for example, the Nile River and its adjacent delta helped give rise to the Egyptian empire that built the pyramids. Today, farmers in the flood plain of California’s Central Valley produce approximately one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts consumed in the United States.
Humans use rivers for irrigation in agriculture, for drinking water, for transportation, to produce electricity through hydroelectric dams, and for leisure activities like swimming and boating. Each of these uses can affect the health of a river and its surrounding ecosystems. Monitoring the health of rivers, lakes, and streams is important work that is conducted by scientists called limnologists.
The Rights of Rivers
Indigenous communities and conservationists around the world are challenging the long-held view of water as a human commodity. Can the same approach work in the United States’ arid Southwest?
On a cloudless July morning, hydrologist Paul Tashjian kneels in the dry riverbed of New Mexico’s Rio Gallina and digs out a sensor designed to track the desert river’s modest flow. Thickets of coyote willows release downy flowers on the riverbanks, and a hummingbird buzzes us as Tashjian, director of freshwater conservation for Audubon Southwest, connects his laptop to download the instrument’s data. Nearby, cottonwoods sieve the breeze beneath red sandstone cliffs, and spotted towhees scratch in the leaf litter.
The Rio Gallina flows out of the foothills of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico, traversing canyons and washes on private and public lands along its 40-kilometer (25-mile) route to the much larger Rio Chama. Historically, a portion of Gallina water was diverted to a small farming operation, but today, that ration is part of a milestone experiment to return water to the river itself, purely to benefit the ecosystem.
What’s a river without water? For rivers in New Mexico, it’s not just a philosophical question, but a literal one.
Across the United States and the world, state and federal laws require that water managers maintain flows in rivers to support endangered species and to ensure that farms and cities have adequate supplies. But until recently, rivers rarely had water rights of their own. Their value lay simply in their ability to transport water to others, no matter the cost to the rivers themselves or the ecosystems they support. Now, as water managers, Indigenous communities, and environmental groups pioneer laws and policies that keep water in rivers for the rivers’ sake, that’s beginning to change.
In one of the most profound examples in recent years, the Whanganui Māori in 2017 legally protected New Zealand’s Whanganui River as a “living entity,” with the same rights as a person; and in Oregon, the Yurok Tribe in 2019 granted personhood to the Klamath River. These streams now have an intrinsic right to flourish with their own water, free from depletion or pollution.
Tashjian, director of freshwater conservation for Audubon Southwest downloads data from a sensor that tracks streamflow in the Rio Gallina.
coyote willow flower blooms near the edge of the Rio Gallina in northern New Mexico.
But how could such a reimagining of water law work in New Mexico and other arid regions, where nearly every drop is measured, allocated, and litigated? In 2017, the National Audubon Society applied for a permit that would test that idea, requesting the rights to 40 acre-feet (about 13 million gallons) of water annually in the Rio Gallina for “instream use” for “fish and wildlife purposes.” In 2019, the state engineer of New Mexico approved the lease, marking the first time that New Mexico had preserved a river’s flow for the benefit of the river itself and its ecosystem. While the amount of water in the Rio Gallina is small, this decision has the potential to fundamentally impact how New Mexicans think about their water—and to alter the courses of New Mexico’s rivers and streams.
When Tashjian finishes downloading the river’s flow data, we bushwhack back through the willows and invasive Russian olive trees to the canal that once carried diverted water. Then, we hike down to a square holding pond, now dry and flecked with white milkweed flowers. Below the pond, the old farmlands look like dusty fields scoured of trees.
Tashjian sees potential in these fields, despite their parched appearance. Since the landowners ceased farming, native vegetation, like saltbush and sagebrush, has come back. Tashijan imagines a future in which the entire area is restored to natural habitat—a thriving ecosystem that survives on rainfall alone.
Continuing downstream, we soon reach the Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande, and Tashjian’s Labrador Retriever, Gus, bounds ahead and splashes in. The sandy mouth of the Rio Gallina is dappled with deer and bird tracks, and velvety black butterflies drink from moist patches. Though no water is running, groundwater recharged by spring flows continues to support thriving cottonwoods, willows, and other vegetation.
In addition to recharging the underground aquifers that trees need to survive, runoff in late spring and early summer also provides critical moisture that riparian plants and animals rely on to complete their life cycles. Even flooding serves a critical function, shifting sediment and debris and creating sandbars where trees can gain a foothold. The inundated floodplain also supports many songbirds, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher that nests along the river. “You want really juiced-out wetlands for them,” Tashjian says.
Leases like the one on the Rio Gallina represent a new tool for environmental groups and others concerned about ecosystem health. But they also represent hope for the plants and animals dependent on the veins of water linking New Mexico’s mountains and deserts, its farmlands and cities. If water users and state officials continue to support the Rio Gallina lease, Tashjian explains, the next step will be to cobble together other small water allotments, eventually linking New Mexico’s riparian oases and creating a life-sustaining “string of pearls” in the desert.
New Mexico lags behind other Western states in approving environmental flows, a push pioneered in Colorado in the 1970s. Adrian Oglesby, a water law attorney and professor at the University of New Mexico law school, calls the state’s authorization of Audubon’s lease “revolutionary.” Yet in some ways, the foundation for the lease was laid down centuries before.
New Mexico’s scant fresh water was first managed for agriculture hundreds of years ago by Native communities, including the 16 Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley, whose members dug gravity-fed ditches to ferry water from rivers to fields. In the 1600s, Spanish colonists introduced acequias, networks of cooperatively managed irrigation canals branching from natural waterways. Because both communities used a shortage-sharing approach, where each user shared in the bounty of wet years and the lean times of droughts, the systems didn’t stress water resources. And because the waterways were managed communally, they strengthened local cultural connections while also irrigating fields of green and red chiles, corn, squash, and other crops.
Over time, tribes and Hispanic communities created “agro-ecosystems,” as Oglesby calls them, in which the needs of human and nonhuman communities were intertwined. The myriad irrigation canals that branch from the Rio Grande and its tributaries, for instance, have long supported both farmers and willow flycatchers.
As more people moved to New Mexico after it became a United States territory in 1848, this history formed the basis for “prior appropriations,” which means the people who had used the water longest had priority when supplies ran short. Yet with more users and a colonial legal regime came an increasingly unique and complicated set of water laws. Today, Pueblos usually have primary rights to water, and many acequia associations are next in line. The state is legally obligated to divert a portion of its water to Texas. Cities, farmers, and industry all take a portion. The environment, Oglesby says, is “often discussed as the newest user,” not taken into account by water managers unless there’s an endangered species for which they’re obligated to preserve habitat.
And the so-called “paper water” promised in times of plenty rarely exists. Currently, half of New Mexico is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions, which are predicted to become more frequent with climate change. “The reality we’re working in with these over-allocated rivers,” Tashjian says, is that “there’s more water rights than water in the river.”
In addition, New Mexico’s waterways are among the most vulnerable in the U.S. Of the state’s streams and rivers, 93%—the highest proportion of any state—are intermittent or ephemeral, meaning they don’t flow year-round.
The competitive legal backdrop and regular shortages leave people like Carolyn Donnelly, water operations supervisor for the Albuquerque office at the Bureau of Reclamation, in a tight spot. On one hand, Donnelly wants to help New Mexico’s ecosystems. She often leases water from partners who don’t use all the water they’re allocated, and “stretches it” to help keep small areas wet and to help fish, birds, and plants survive. Yet Donnelly is constrained by the system in which she operates, and her main obligation is to endangered species and farmers—not to so-called environmental flows meant to sustain the ecosystem as a whole.
During 2020’s record dry summer, local and federal partners diverted unused water to keep the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque. And despite better summer monsoon rains in 2021, it was a difficult year for those dependent on the Rio Grande: The central region’s irrigation district ended flows to farmers early, and New Mexico’s reservoirs were left with very little water in storage.
In these critical times, creative approaches to sourcing water have become not just aspirational but also essential.
Video by Christina Selby
“This is a really birdie spot,” says Amy Erickson, a biologist for Audubon New Mexico, as birdsong fills the canopy of cottonwoods between the Rio Grande and an irrigation ditch at dawn. As we walk, she quickly identifies the warble of a summer tanager, the buzzy chirp of a yellow-breasted chat, and the trilling of a spotted towhee. The one whistling a high-pitched “whitchitty whitchitty whitchitty,” she tells me, is a common yellowthroat, found at the water’s edge.
I have joined Erickson at this spot south of Albuquerque—one of six local sites where water taken from the Rio Grande for irrigation is returned to the river—to see firsthand whether riparian ecosystems can be strategically maintained with relatively small inputs. Our main quarry is the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, a subspecies of the willow flycatcher, impacted here by dwindling water and decreasing habitat and monitored by Audubon on behalf of a network of nonprofit and governmental partners.
It’s late July and the end of the nesting season for the flycatchers, also known as “swiffles” for their abbreviation “SWFL.” Erickson’s method is simple: She plays a recording of a male flycatcher, and if she hears a real bird call in response, she logs it.
A thicket of thirsty, invasive salt cedar shades the narrow trail to the river, its brown scales blanketing the ground, turning the soil salty and inhospitable. For stretches of the Rio Grande choked by invasive plants, restoration requires more than just maintaining or increasing water flow. Since it guzzles precious water and raises the risk of wildfire, the salt cedar (also known as “tamarisk”) might otherwise be targeted for removal. But salt cedar also creates dense, protected habitat that’s appealing to willow flycatchers.
“In areas where [the birds] don’t have any good remaining native habitat, they will use the salt cedar for nesting,” Erickson says. That’s one reason these surveys are critical: “If we want to do restoration on a site where we know flycatchers are nesting in the salt cedar, we’ll put a buffer around that nest site.”
Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are common residents of the bosque, perching high in cottonwoods to spy their prey—often the many songbirds of the riparian forest.
We trek through deep, fine sand as the sky lightens. Erickson stops at intervals to play the call, and we listen intently. I catch the faint scent of moist earth through my mask.
Finally, we reach the river. A shallow channel meanders between sandbars and reflects the clouds. This is where Erickson heard a flycatcher on her last survey. She holds up her phone and plays the recorded “fitz peew” series. We wait. Other birds continue their dawn chorus, but no flycatchers reply.
This spot should be perfect. Thick stands of coyote willow roll down to a sandy bank a few feet above the sluggish río. But the lack of flycatchers at this seemingly ideal site mirrors their fate across the Southwest: The outlook for flycatchers and other riparian species in the region is bleak. “These Western riparian habitats that they’re closely tied to, they’re almost gone,” Erickson says. The bird she heard earlier in the season was probably just passing through.
Given the tremendous pressures facing these ecosystems, the stakes are high for rare plants and animals. And while restoring water to rivers transcends the often-narrow focus of protecting endangered species, Audubon’s experiment may very well give flycatchers the boost they need to survive.
Along the Rio Grande, a network of canals and ditches branches like veins, sluicing water to farms, gardens, and fields before eventually returning it to the river. Some ditches are centuries-old earthen acequias winding through pueblos and villages. Others are broad and barren, marching in neat grids through farm fields.
For decades, engineers like Mike Hamman, the chief engineer at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, have focused largely on building dams, levees, ditches, and channels to deliver New Mexico’s water to the people and animals legally entitled to it. But as Southwestern rivers dry up, even people whose obligations seem at odds with Audubon’s experiment are coming around to the idea of letting rivers flow for their own sake. As Oglesby, the law professor, puts it, “the cultural resistance to environmental stewardship” that’s long been prevalent among state water managers might finally be decreasing.
Hamman, whose agency provides water to farmers along a 240-kilometer (150-mile) stretch in central New Mexico, is a good example. He’s been working on water issues in the region for more than 35 years, and says the severe shortages in recent years have begun to change his approach. Climate change has brought higher temperatures and increased evaporation, leading his agency to make “strategic changes in the way we manage water and how we divert it.”
Invasive burdock, here growing successfully in the dried bed of the Rio Grande, has become a common part of the river’s ecosystem
The desert cottontail is a common species in the bosque along the Rio Grande. Photo by Christina Selby
One such change is a water-leasing program, where farmers fallow their fields and lease their water to the district for use on other farms or to keep in the river. While the program is still new, “shortages bring attention to the issue,” he says. In 2021, the number of participants in the program quadrupled over the previous year.
Even John Romero, who directs water rights at the Office of the State Engineer, agrees that while Audubon’s lease is logistically challenging, “it’s in the public welfare of the state of New Mexico to keep a river flowing or to maybe keep a certain habitat alive. Those are positive things.”
While change is difficult amid a tangle of local, state, and federal rules, supporters say the benefits of keeping New Mexico’s rivers alive far outweigh the sacrifices. And each small change—from Hamman’s water-leasing program to Romero’s willingness to accept Audubon’s experiment—represents another mechanism to support the vision of riverine oases weaving through New Mexico’s arid landscapes.
While Audubon’s 2019 lease on the Rio Gallina was the first time state agencies agreed to let a river flow for its own sake, it’s not the only example. In 2020, the nonprofit Trout Unlimited leased nearly 3 acre-feet (nearly 975,000 gallons) per year from Dick Nordhaus, whose family owns a 243-hectare (600-acre) ranch in northern New Mexico. Ponderosa pine trees cover the ranch’s hillsides, and Nordhaus says they’ve spotted bears, elk, deer, ducks, herons, and eagles here—all drawn to the creek that spills out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and runs through Nordhaus’ ranch before joining the Gallina.
In Nordhaus’ grandparents’ time, in the late 1800s, the creek’s banks were free of vegetation, likely from overgrazing. Now that the family is letting nature take its course, thick willows crowd the banks. Beavers have returned, and the family worked with a local watershed alliance to restore native vegetation. Last year, they took another step in habitat restoration, leasing water previously diverted to a hay field to Trout Unlimited to keep the stream flowing—the second such permit approved by the state engineer. While the amount of water is small, it builds on the precedent set by Audubon’s lease.
The ranch is shared among family members as a vacation home, and Nordhaus says the additional income will help support and preserve the property. But mostly, “it was a good idea,” he says. The creek’s cold waters help cool the Gallina, improving its fishery. The downstream city of Las Vegas, New Mexico, is also dependent on the Gallina for its municipal water supply, so keeping water in the creek helps ensure a steady supply for city residents. “As far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing but benefit to this,” Nordhaus says.
In New Mexico, water rights’ holders must use their water in order to maintain their rights, but drought can make tight profit margins nonexistent during a bad year. If Trout Unlimited can offer farmers reliable income through leasing their water—instead of investing in a crop that may fail due to drought—“you don’t even have to worry about producing a hay crop,” says Toner Mitchell, the New Mexico water and habitat program manager for Trout Unlimited. “You’ll be compensated for the equivalent.”
Living in the arid Southwest, water seems to constantly slip through our grasp—soaking into a sandy riverbed or seeping into a deep aquifer. Even summer’s towering clouds often fail, releasing veils of rain that evaporate before they reach the ground.
Because of its scarcity and importance to all living things, people native to the Southwest have long treated water as a sacred resource. But since European colonizers arrived in the region some 400 years ago, water has often been treated like any other commodity. Indigenous communities are part of the growing chorus challenging that view.
Julia Bernal, a member of Sandia Pueblo and also from the Yuchi-Creek Nation, is director of Albuquerque-based Pueblo Action Alliance. There, she advocates for Indigenous water rights and management strategies in place of the capitalist, colonialist system that treats water as a commodity. Indigenous communities offer a fundamental difference in their perspectives on water, she says. Instead of being viewed as only resources, waterways are considered “living entities.”
“Our original instructions have been to tend and steward the land and the water,” Bernal says.
The leases being pioneered by Audubon and Trout Unlimited share the same ethos as this Indigenous worldview—an ecological approach to water management that emphasizes interdependence. They may be the first step toward a more expansive system. And if the concept is successful and expands to other parts of the state, it has the potential not only to aid New Mexico’s diverse ecosystems but also its human communities.
“So much of New Mexican culture is based on our acequia systems,” says Mitchell. When rivers dry up, “it’s not just an acequia or farming that will perish. It’s an entire culture.”
80% OF RIVER PLASTIC STEMS FROM 1000 RIVERS
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PLACEMENT IN RIVERS
Alongside our research into the most polluting rivers, we have also conducted research on where to best place Interceptors in the rivers.
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Where does your drinking water come from?
• If you live in Seattle, your water comes from the Cedar and Tolt rivers, where surrounding forests help protect water quality.
• If you live in New York City, some of your water comes from the Delaware River basin.• The 3.2 million residents of Minnesota’s Twin Cities get their water from the Mississippi River.
• Most of metro Atlanta’s 4.1 million residents get their water from the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.
• The lifeline of the Colorado River sustains more than 36 million people across seven states, from Denver to Los Angeles.
Once a community system pulls water from a river (and in some cases a well), the water is treated to federal and state required purity levels before being pumped and piped to our houses as clean drinking water.
While our tap water is generally safe to drink, threats to rivers and drinking water are increasing. We shouldn’t take clean water for granted.
American Rivers is working on the national, state, and local levels to ensure we have healthy rivers and clean water for generations to come.
How much water do we use?
The “water footprint” of the average American is 32,911 glasses per day. But nobody drinks that much water – ninety-six percent of our water footprint comes from growing the food we eat, generating energy, and manufacturing clothes and other goods.
One great resource to check out is The Water Footprint Network, which can help you learn about water use and calculate your own water footprint.