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Frontiers of Earth Science

Front. Earth Sci.    2017, Vol. 11 Issue (3) : 447-456     DOI: 10.1007/s11707-017-0647-y
The significance of small streams
Ellen WOHL()
Department of Geosciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1482, USA
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Headwaters, defined here as first- and second-order streams, make up 70%–80% of the total channel length of river networks. These small streams exert a critical influence on downstream portions of the river network by: retaining or transmitting sediment and nutrients; providing habitat and refuge for diverse aquatic and riparian organisms; creating migration corridors; and governing connectivity at the watershed-scale. The upstream-most extent of the channel network and the longitudinal continuity and lateral extent of headwaters can be difficult to delineate, however, and people are less likely to recognize the importance of headwaters relative to other portions of a river network. Consequently, headwaters commonly lack the legal protections accorded to other portions of a river network and are more likely to be significantly altered or completely obliterated by land use.

Keywords headwaters      hydrology      water quality      land use      connectivity      resilience     
Corresponding Authors: Ellen WOHL   
Just Accepted Date: 28 February 2017   Online First Date: 07 April 2017    Issue Date: 12 July 2017
 Cite this article:   
Ellen WOHL. The significance of small streams[J]. Front. Earth Sci., 2017, 11(3): 447-456.
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Fig.1  Schematic illustration of (a) biotic contributions of headwaters and (b) physical characteristics of headwaters.
Fig.2  The six dimensions of connectivity. The segment of channel shown here is connected to: upstream and downstream portions of the river network; adjacent uplands; the floodplain; ground water; the hyporheic zone (gray); and the atmosphere. The photograph for upstream-downstream connection was taken during a flood on the Paria River, a tributary of the Colorado River that enters just downstream from Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona, USA. In this view, the Paria is turbid with suspended sediment whereas the Colorado, which is released from the base of the dam, is clear. The photograph for the hillslope-channel connection shows a large landslide entering the Dudh Khosi River in Nepal. The photograph for the floodplain-channel connection was taken along the Rio Jutai, a blackwater tributary of the Amazon River, during the annual flood in early June. In this view the ‘flooded forest’ is submerged by several meters of water. The photograph for hyporheic-channel connection shows a mixing zone between hyporheic return flow (clear water at left) and turbid surface flow along a braided section of the Duke River in Canada. The photograph for atmosphere-channel connection shows a mayfly emerging from the river prior to entering the atmosphere as a winged adult (image courtesy of Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated). (AfterWohl, 2014, Figure 1.1)
Research need Description
Mapping We are unable to predict the location of first-order channels in particular, which limits ability to define their spatial distribution and cumulative length or area. This in turn limits understanding of their physical or ecological function, as well as the extent of direct or indirect human alteration of these smallest channels in a river network
Resistance & resilience We cannot adequately characterize or predict either physical or ecological resistance or resilience of many headwater streams. We need additional case studies of headwaters response to natural and human-induced disturbances in order to develop a sufficient body of literature to support generalizations and predictions. We also need metrics to characterize resistance and resilience of headwater streams, which are likely to have greater magnitude and frequency of disturbances than higher-order channels
Human alterations We need more site-specific case studies and watershed- to regional-scale assessments of how land use and climate change affect the distribution, form, and function of headwaters
Biota Complete species inventories do not exist for the great majority of headwater streams, which limits our ability to understand and predict the contribution of headwaters to biodiversity and the ecological resilience of these streams to natural and human disturbances
Hydrology There is a need for both techniques to measure the spatial and temporal extent of surface flow in streams that are ephemeral or intermittent, and datasets of such measurements. We also need more quantitative measurements of hydrologic variability and metrics that characterize hydrologic variability.
Hydraulics and sediment regime Headwaters are predominantly sediment transfer zones, but we need more case studies of the magnitude and episodicity of sediment inputs and downstream transfer, including the hydraulic thresholds that facilitate such transfer.
Connectivity As with hydrologic variability, we need more measurement techniques, metrics, and datasets of diverse forms of connectivity in headwaters.
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