The Importance of Headwater Streams

The scientific literature unequivocally demonstrates that streams, individually or cumulatively, exert a strong influence on the integrity of downstream waters. All tributary streams, including perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams, are physically, chemically, and biologically connected to downstream rivers via channels and associated alluvial deposits where water and other materials are concentrated, mixed, transformed, and transported. Streams are the dominant source of water in most rivers, and the majority of tributaries are perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral headwater streams. Headwater streams also convey water into local storage compartments such as ponds, shallow aquifers, or stream banks, and into regional and alluvial aquifers; these local storage compartments are important sources of water for maintaining baseflow in rivers. In addition to water, streams transport sediment, wood, organic matter, nutrients, chemical contaminants, and many of the organisms found in rivers. The literature provides robust evidence that streams are biologically connected to downstream waters by the dispersal and migration of aquatic and semiaquatic organisms, including fish, amphibians, plants, microorganisms, and invertebrates, that use both upstream and downstream habitats during one or more stages of their life cycles, or provide food resources to downstream communities. In addition to material transport and biological connectivity, ephemeral, intermittent, and perennial flows influence fundamental biogeochemical processes by connecting channels and shallow ground water with other landscape elements. Physical, chemical, and biological connections between streams and downstream waters interact via integrative processes such as nutrient spiraling, in which stream communities assimilate and chemically transform large quantities of nitrogen and other nutrients that otherwise would be transported directly downstream, increasing nutrient loads and associated impairments due to excess nutrients in downstream waters.

Headwater Stream


  • Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands

    The report summarizes current scientific understanding about the connectivity of streams and wetlands to downstream waters. The U.S. EPA has conducted a thorough review of the literature - more than 1,200 peer-reviewed and published documents - on the scientific evidence regarding the effects that streams, nontidal wetlands, and open waters have on larger downstream waters such as rivers, lakes, estuaries and oceans.