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A river is a natural stream of water, usually freshwater, flowing toward an ocean, a lake, or another stream. In some cases a river flows into the ground or dries up completely before reaching another body of water. Usually larger streams are called rivers while smaller streams are called creeks, brooks, rivulets, rills, and many other terms, but there is no general rule that defines what can be called a river. Sometimes a river is said to be larger than a creek, but this is not always the case.

A river is a component of the water cycle. The water within a river is generally collected from precipitation through surface runoff, groundwater recharge (as seen at baseflow conditions / during periods of lack of precipitation) and release of stored water in natural reservoirs, such as a glacier.

A river may have its source in a spring, lake, from damp, boggy landscapes where the soil is waterlogged, from glacial melt, or from surface runoff of precipitation. Almost all rivers are joined by other rivers and streams termed tributaries, the highest of which are known as headwaters. Water may also originate from groundwater sources. Throughout the course of the river, the total volume transported downstream will often be a combination of the free water flow together with a substantial contribution flowing through sub-surface rocks and gravels that underlie the river and its floodplain. For many rivers in large valleys, this unseen component of flow may greatly exceed the visible flow.

From their source, rivers flow downhill, typically terminating in a sea or in a lake, through a confluence. In arid areas rivers sometimes end by losing water to evaporation. River water may also infiltrate into the soil or pervious rock, where it becomes groundwater. Excessive abstraction of water for use in industry, irrigation, etc., can also cause a river to dry before reaching its natural terminus.

The mouth, or lower end, of a river is known as its base level. The area drained by a river and its canals is called catchment, catchment basin, drainage basin or watershed. The term “watershed” is also used to mean a boundary between catchments, which is also called a water divide, or in some, continental divide.


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