Every river begins somewhere… and that somewhere is the network of little streams that blanket the landscape as they merge and flow downstream, becoming a river system.
Headwaters are the small swales, creeks and streams that are the origins of larger streams and rivers
Headwater streams may be ephemeral, intermittent or perennial. Ephemeral streams contain flowing water during limited periods – typically after major rainstorms. Intermittent streams flow only during the wet season each year. Perennial streams have water flowing year-round.
Because water flows, its quality in the headwaters has a strong influence on water quality downstream. Efforts to protect water quality in major streams, rivers, lakes and even estuaries must begin at their source. In the past, headwaters were regarded as insignificant because they are often small and discreet. In recent years we have truly gained an appreciation for the role that headwaters play in water quality across watersheds.
Ecological Services of Headwater Streams
• Sediment Control: Because headwater streams so frequently originate in forests and meadows, they are often surrounded by vegetated buffers that help to stop large quantities of sediment from travelling downstream. Collectively, headwaters streams can prevent siltation from becoming a problem in the larger streams and rivers into which they flow. This means less flooding and a reduced need for dredging downstream.
• Pollution Control: Headwater streams filter pollutants (including excessive levels of nutrients) and thereby help keep downstream waters clean, making them suitable for both human use and wildlife habitat.
• Flood Control: Headwater streams are closely linked to wetlands and groundwater, and they play an important role in controlling how much water flows into the larger streams they feed. Local and downstream flooding and erosion can be prevented (or at least minimized) when headwater streams are intact.
• Wildlife Habitat Corridors: Headwater streams serve as habitat for native wildlife. The biological diversity of natural systems is highly dependent on the health of headwater stream systems. This is important not just to wildlife – human recreation opportunities and even property values are greatly enhanced when wildlife habitat values are high.
• Water and Food Supply: Headwater streams provide base flow to downstream waterways. This base flow contains both living organisms (fish, macroinvertebrates, and more) and decaying organic matter which nourish larger streams and rivers.