The importance of small streams


small streams provide clean water

Stream in Branford, CT | Credit: Frank Slack

Small streams, why care?

They’re small, you can’t paddle or swim…so why do they matter and what’s all the fuss about saving these systems.

For me it’s a bit different. Over the years I have developed a love affair with these tiny streams. What once began as a childhood playground, later an undergraduate research project and thesis dissertation has now turned into a full-fledged fight for their protection. I can’t seem to get enough.

So what’s to love about small streams. In short, everything.

Small streams, otherwise referred to as headwaters, are vital habitat for many aquatic and semi-aquatic species and integral for clean water.

So if you love black belly salamanders, rainbow darters or Coho salmon—you must love small streams.

These small headwaters, some of which only run freely for parts of the year (depending on precipitation), are unique environments. Essentially, they provide the filtering mechanism for our nation’s clean water. Scientific research has proven that these areas, which make up over 80% of stream miles in many regions, literally clean water for downstream communities. Through ecosystem process whereby the stream water encounters microbes like bacteria and fungi living on stream substrate (rocks and sediment) these small organisms uptake and transform potentially harmful material such as excess nitrogen and phosphorus into less harmful forms. These nutrients are important but excess supplies cause many issues. Excess nutrients fuel growth of harmful algal blooms, which in turn lower oxygen levels, leading to fish kills and dead zones in oceans.

So if you love water skiing, swimming or oysters—you must love small streams.

These small streams are vital for other reasons both in flood mitigation and recharging groundwater supplies. Because these tiny streams have the most surface area in contact with the soil not only do they absorb significant amounts of rain and snow thereby preventing downstream flooding but also contribute to groundwater as water within the stream interacts with the soil and is absorbed.

Headwater streams also provide food for downstream organisms. Headwaters receive large amounts of energy inputs, in the case of Eastern streams mainly leaves, which are utilized by organisms such as bacteria and fungi making the leaf “juicer” for insects. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of adding blueberries to your cereal—it now not only tastes better but it’s better for you. Stream insects also drift downstream and become important food for fish.

So if you love watching dragonflies, fishing or simply drinking beer while someone else fishes—you must love small streams.

Convincing you to love small streams and convincing political agendas are a bit different. Currently, several issues are working against our headwater streams. These include: funding cuts in the budget for EPA and the Energy and Interior Departments, threats to drinking water supply through gas drilling (mainly involving chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing), continued burial and chemical contamination of small streams by mountain top mining and lastly a lack of conservation of stream buffers and continued urbanization of streams.

So love your small streams and urge your political representatives to love them too!