How Many Rivers?

Whenever I make a move, as I did recently, I take an inventory of what my resources are.  I recently moved back to Olympia after a short gig in Skagit County.  I am starting a new job that is broadening my scope of professional and natural history awareness.  I find myself wondering as I try to convince others that watersheds are worth saving–how many rivers are in my region?

My desk in the Eastside neighborhood, Olympia, Thurston County, WA.

Part of my new job with WSU Extension is to use on-line media to reach out to residents of Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.  We want people to commit to making a difference for the watershed by taking the Pacific Northwest Clean Waters Challenge.

As with any good project I take on, I like to do some research and find more information.

After 8 years of living in the Puget Sound basin, I realize that I can name 13 rivers that flow into the Puget Sound–just off the top of my head.  There are at least 35 total according to some sources.  Make that 10 rivers I can name off the top of my head if I consider Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon–I am sure there are many more than that though.  How many can you list?

Why is it important?  Someone told me, “If you don’t know what you have, you won’t know what you have missed.”  If we as residents of our place don’t make an effort to know they places and systems significant to our region, then we have no foundation for learning more and taking care of them.

Our rivers and watersheds provide vital services to the community.  Beyond the obvious service of providing safe, clean drinking water, they also serve our daily household needs.  Industry uses water in various ways, such as the making of paper.  For every sheet of paper, 10 liters/0.26 US gallons is needed.  A cotton t-shirt requires 2700 liters/713.26 US gallons (Water Footprint Network).  In addition, water in rivers, creeks and lakes provide necessary habitat for fresh water and salt water species (some are both like salmon).

The Pacific Salmon come back to finish their cycle in the creeks and rivers by laying down their lives and seeds for a new generation.  The new generation will rely on the habitat for many things including water bugs/aquatic macro-invertebrates.  So will the cycle continue as many species from bears to birds rely on the salmon at both ends of the salmon life cycle.  Even the trees in the forest need the nutrients from the salmon carcasses.  Those trees and soils absorb excess water and protect us from flooding.

When I start to look at my resources, I realize there are many rivers–names I have known and some I have never heard.  Some I have visited–others will have to be on my list.

An ocean-bound river system consists of many tributaries–creeks, rivers and lakes.  The combined water coming off the basin quickly combines into one channel, our largest rivers, before pouring to the sea.  I know the water system is more complicated than that as you consider the ground water contributions to the river and the contribution the river makes to groundwater–not to mention how humans influence quantity.  I feel for the hydrologists in our state.

According to one source, Washington state has 167 distinctly named rivers and creeks total in the state.  Most of these combine to flow into our Ocean–only 70 rivers meet the Sea.  The combined power of 167 is forced into 70 channels.  They include names like: Calawah River, Chehalis River, Chewuch River, Chilliwack River, Chinook River, Chiwaukum Creek, Chiwawa River, Clallam River, Cle Elum River and Cowlitz River–bearing witness to indigenous peoples of the land.  Others: American River, Dickey River, Foss River, Kelsey Creek, Lewis River, McAleer Creek, Miller River, Nason Creek and Pratt River–other heritages.  Imaging a map with names conjures images of incredibly complicated vein patterns like those on a leaf.

More impressively are Alaska’s 110 rivers that flow to the Ocean–Bering Sea, Arctic Basin and Gulf of Alaska.  Those 110 rivers are fed by 212 tributaries (rivers and creeks) feeding a system that reaches across our largest state–13.77% of the total  area is water.  The top ten longest: Yukon River – 1,980 miles (3,190 km); Kuskokwim River – 724 miles (1,165 km); Noatak River – 425 miles (684 km); Stikine River – 379 miles (610 km); Colville River – 350 miles (560 km); Susitna River – 313 miles (504 km); Copper River – 300 miles (480 km); Kobuk River – 280 miles (450 km); Alsek River – 240 miles (390 km) and the Nushagak River – 242 miles (389 km).

Idaho is interesting as it is further inland than the coastal states.  It has rivers that flow to the Ocean and others that snake into interior basins and toward Utah.  The rivers that flow to the Ocean do so through the singular Columbia River.  121 rivers and creeks feed the huge Columbia River that flows through Washington and along Oregon and then to the Ocean.  15 rivers and creeks feed interior basins–though 9 of these are linked underground to the Snake which feeds the Columbia.  In Idaho there are three Camas Creeks–each feeding a different river.

Oregon state receives plenty of rain too and most of that water snakes across the state before flowing back to the Ocean.  30 main rivers flow to the Ocean–one shared with WA and two with California.  189 rivers and creeks are fed into this system.  Finally, 10 rivers eventually evaporate back into the clouds in the eastern desert basins.  There many forks in Oregon–though the water doesn’t get lost: North Fork Alsea River, North Fork Breitenbush River, North Fork Bull Run River, North Fork Clackamas River, North Fork Crooked River, North Fork John Day River, North Fork Malheur River, North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River, North Fork Owyhee River, North Fork Siuslaw River, North Fork Smith River, North Fork Smith River, North Fork Sprague River and the North Fork Umatilla River.

In total, in case you weren’t counting, that is 211 main rivers that need protection, 829 total that flow through the states of Alaska, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.  And that is not counting British Columbia–600 miles of Western Canada coastline.


I have learned in my work that many of these rivers are loved by locals and receive special attention.  Some examples here in WA include Friends of the Cedar River Watershed and The Nisqually River Council.  It doesn’t take long to search out and find your local resource group.  Here is a regional listing.

Since I am fairly new to this town, I am curious what and where my local waterways and bodies are.  I know the water flowing off my lawn and drive goes to East Bay, Budd Inlet in Olympia.  The Deschutes River flows into West Bay.  What is the creek that I see coming out from under the street and through the outflow pipe?  How long has it been since this creek has seen light at the mouth–where original Olympians filled in the estuary to make way for downtown development?  How long has it been since salmon swam up that creek–or did they not?

I have hiked several times in the watershed.  The City of Olympia has a nice park–Watershed Park with trails.  I should dig deeper–another time I will have to answer those questions.

Stay curious–dive deep–take care!


4 Responses to “How Many Rivers?”

  1. Sally Leider Says:

    Do you mean 100 rather than 10 in the fifth paragraph? Your statistics are confusing me!

    • bstafki Says:

      Thanks for the comment! I guess what I meant to say is that I can only name 10 rivers off the top of my head for all the states of AK, ID, WA and OR. I’ll try to make the stats more accessible. I’m just considering how many recognized waterways there are total in a state–and how they change to have different names when the combine to one. With something as fluid as water, where can you draw boundaries–seems kind of arbitrary.

  2. Jennifer K Says:

    should we be daylighting the underground creeks or would that make more shorelines we aren’t properly protecting?

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