What’s the Difference: River vs Stream Explained

Written by Kristen Holder
Published: June 14, 2022
Image Credit Enrique Alcala/Shutterstock.com
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We hear the terms river and stream used interchangeably, yet despite their similarities, there is a difference between them. Both rivers and streams are vital to life on this planet, so what’s the difference between a stream vs a river?

When enough precipitation falls from the sky, the ground can’t absorb it. The excess water is pulled by gravity from a higher elevation to a lower elevation down mountains, gradients, and slopes. Almost all streams and rivers are made by this type of water runoff, though some are sourced from glaciers or springs.

Often, precipitation will gather and form a lake at a higher elevation. A resultant river emerges when the lake goes beyond capacity regularly, which releases water downhill. Rivers and streams are responsible for supporting immense ecosystems as they wind freshwater from one place to another.

What exactly are some differences and similarities between a river vs a stream? We’ll explore the details now.

River vs Stream Explained

RiverStream
FreshwaterYesYes
Capable of FloodingYesYes
Flows in One DirectionYesYes
Flows DownhillYesYes
One Needs the OtherRivers Need StreamsStreams Feed Rivers
Drain WatershedsYesYes
SizeLargerSmaller

River vs Stream Explained:

  • Both rivers and streams carry freshwater.
  • Both rivers and streams will flood.
  • Streams and rivers flow in one direction.
  • Both streams and rivers flow downhill.
  • Rivers rely on streams to fill them.
  • Streams and rivers both help drain watersheds.
  • Rivers are larger than streams.

What is a River?

Peace River - Canada
Rivers have banks and well-defined channels.

mike8816/Shutterstock.com

Rivers are naturally occurring watercourses that flow from one place to another in a well-defined channel. They originate from a source, like a stream-fed lake, and they continually get larger as they’re joined by their tributaries.

Most rivers aren’t sourced from one solitary spot, even though they often originate from a lake. Instead, there’s a fanning network of channels of various sizes that continually join together until a river is formed. Streams play a major role in this channel network.

Sometimes, two rivers meet and become one river, which is called a confluence. The Sacramento River and the American River connect to become the Sacramento River in California. There are many examples of this around the nation and the world.

Generally, human development around a river negatively impacts the health of the river. It’s possible to study the development of civilizations through recent history to understand if, when, and how the health of a river has deteriorated due to human use.

What is a Stream?

Streams feed rivers.

Enrique Alcala/Shutterstock.com

Streams are more temporary than rivers, though they help bring water to the rivers. That isn’t to say that all streams are temporary; many flow all the time, whether it’s the rainy season or not. Rivers are usually sourced from fanning waterways, and a lot of the players in these fanning waterways are streams.

Rivers need streams to exist. Streams are vital in providing enough freshwater for a river channel to form. The place where enough streams have come together to form something large enough to be a river is known as a confluence.

There is a nuance present in the language used to describe creeks and streams as well. While creeks and streams may seem like the same thing, creeks, in general, are a little more well-defined and permanent. Creeks are formed by streams, and these creeks then continue into a lake or river.

That isn’t to say that only creeks flow into larger water sources. They’re both slightly different in their functionality concerning their role in moving freshwater precipitation from its source to the ocean.

 What is an Interrupted River?

An interrupted river is a subterranean river that flows on land at some points on its path and dips below the ground through other parts of its course. This almost always occurs when the riverbed is made of limestone. Limestone is extremely porous and allows water to seep through it.

Rivers sometimes create caves. If the water is pushed underground through porous rock for any reason, a cave system may be created similarly to the creation of canyons. Moving water eventually erodes stone enough to create space for the water to flow.

The Santa Fe River in Florida behaves like this. It reaches a bed of limestone, which absorbs the water and pushes it underground. It re-emerges where the limestone ends about 3 miles downstream.

These underwater rivers and the caves they create are not uncommon in northern Florida. Special kinds of life thrive in subterranean rivers like cavefish.

The water that is absorbed from the surface into the ground doesn’t rush through the stone. Rather, it seeps through, which causes the water in the river to come to a standstill. There isn’t a rush of water that pours into some underground funnel.

Where the interrupted river dips below the surface is called a swallow hole. 

The Puerto Princesa River in the Philippines is another example of this phenomenon. Precipitation seeps through a huge layer of limestone into an underground river that flows to the ocean below the surface.

What is Eutrophication and Why is it Important?

Atchafalaya river
Eutrophication can be caused by bridges.

iStock.com/Sean Gardner

Eutrophication is the process by which a stream or river has too many nutrients in it. This causes an overabundance of plant life which chokes the ecosystem and kills most of its residents except the overly abundant flora.

Human intervention in the structure of a stream and river system is usually what causes eutrophication. Streams and rivers are blocked by developments such as roads and crossings, which hinders the natural flow of the river. This keeps organisms from traveling to different locations and also causes a buildup of nutrients and sediment.

Climate change is also a factor in eutrophication since streams and rivers across the United States have been slowly warming up. If this continues, it will cause devastating consequences for ecosystems while setting the stage for eutrophication. Entire habitats may be choked or changed.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance ghostwriter that specializes in SEO content. I have always loved writing, and when COVID happened, I went at my passion full tilt. I'm currently in Spokane, WA by way of Phoenix, AZ, though I'm originally from Sacramento, CA. Freelancing allows me the freedom to move around as I please.