• Stream vs. creek vs. river

    Question

    What's the difference between a stream, creek and river?

    Naturalist's Response

    So, we enter into the somewhat nebulus topic of stream classification.

    Consulting a few sources, the common term for all downhill flowing ribbons of water is stream.  They’re all streams. Streams are classified, not by width, depth or length, but by a system known as stream ordering.  The common terms are quite subjective depending on region and local history.

    • First order streams: the smallest streams that have no tributaries. We could call these brooks or rivulets.  Little streams that you can hop across and not get wet. (GPD example: Pebble Brook in The West Woods)
    • Second order streams: result from the merging of two first order streams. Often designated as creeks, these small streams require a bridge, stepping stones or wading to cross. (GPD examples: Big Creek, Swine Creek, Silver Creek)
    • Third order streams: larger streams formed from the merger of two second order streams or creeks if you will. Streams that would have to be bridged, waded or even swam across. Referred to as branches in the headwater regions of watersheds. (Geauga examples:  East Branch and Aurora Branches of the Chagrin River, East and West Branches of the Cuyahoga River)
    • Fourth order: streams formed by the merging of two third order streams. These streams would qualify as rivers, requiring big bridges, boats or swimming to cross.

    There you go.

    -Naturalist Dan Best

    Please also check this website from the USGS. Some people classify them by their width and depth; from smallest to largest would be creek, stream and river.

    -Naturalist Program Coordinator Denise Wolfe