What is a Watercourse?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A watercourse is a moving body of water such as a stream, river, brook, or creek. By definition, watercourses must be flowing, but they may be natural or artificial, and they can also be seasonal, especially in areas with dry seasons which eliminate some bodies of water until the wet season arrives. A watercourse which is large and deep enough to be navigable is called a waterway; waterways can also be seasonal, reflecting fluctuations in water and sediment levels which could render a body of water temporarily unnavigable.

The Three Gorges Dam, which spans a watercourse called the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China.
The Three Gorges Dam, which spans a watercourse called the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China.

Watercourses are an extremely important part of the natural environment, and the study of watercourses is extensive and quite diverse. Watercourses carry runoff from glaciers, snow, and springs, providing water for animals and irrigation for plants, establishing unique habitats along the way. They can also carry sediments, provide a habitat for aquatic animals and plants, and shape the landscape as they wend their way across it.

Erosion may occur around waterways.
Erosion may occur around waterways.

The health of a regional watercourse is often of great importance o biologists and scientists, as unhealthy waterways can quickly make the surrounding area unhealthy. The study of watercourse health and management focuses on issues like water use, dams, erosion around watercourses, pollution, and animal studies to see which creatures call the area around the watercourse home. Fish and algae populations are often used as gauges to see how healthy a watercourse is.

A collection of watercourses which joins together at a single point to drain into an ocean or a large inland body of water is known as a watershed. All of the watercourses within a watershed are interconnected, so things which happen to one watercourse can affect the watershed as a whole. For example, if a watercourse becomes contaminated with agricultural runoff, it can carry pesticides, fertilizer, and herbicides down the watershed, polluting all of the water downstream and potentially causing significant environmental harm.

In addition to being an important part of the environment, watercourses are also important for human populations, who use watercourses to supply water to their communities, navigate, and recreate. Many humans enjoy swimming and boating on regional watercourses, and some people find it pleasant to live or work near a body of moving water, viewing the water as relaxing and pleasing to look at. Historically, human settlements are often very close to watercourses, because water is so important to human existence.

Small waterways, like brooks, creeks, and streams, are also watercourses.
Small waterways, like brooks, creeks, and streams, are also watercourses.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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