Monday, June 21, 2021

Episode 582 (6-21-21): Where Headwaters Flow, Rivers Begin

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (5:09).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 6-18-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of June 21, 2021.  This revised episode from December 2017 is part of a series this year of episodes related to watersheds and river basins.

MUSIC – ~12 – instrumental

That’s part of “Highland,” by the group Wake Up Robin, with musicians from North Carolina, New York, California, and Washington State.  It opens an episode about waterways in the highest and most upstream part of watersheds, where water starts following a channel and flowing overland towards rivers.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to two Virginia examples, and see if you can guess the name for these upper watershed features.  And here’s a hint: get this right and you’ll stream to the head of water class.

SOUND - ~ 11 sec

If you guessed headwater streams, you’re right!  Headwater streams are the first flowing waters in the upper part of a river’s watershed.  These relatively small streams have a big range of functions, including as habitat for certain organisms or life stages, and as a source of water, materials, and organisms for downstream waters.

Understanding the location and length of headwater streams in the Appalachian Mountains, particularly in response to storms, was the research goal of Carrie Jensen, a graduate student from 2014 to 2018 in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.   In November 2017, Ms. Jensen described her research and its significance in just 90 seconds during the “Nutshell Games,” held by Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science.  Here’s Ms. Jensen’s presentation.

GUEST VOICE - ~84 sec – “Hi, everyone.  My name is Carrie, and I study changes in stream length in Appalachian headwaters, which are the small streams where our rivers start on the landscape.  So I literally walk upstream with a GPS unit until I find where a stream begins in the mountains.  And these headwaters can expand and contract in length through time, getting longer when it’s wet after it rains, and getting shorter during dry periods.  And I wanted to know if this expansion and contraction behavior is the same everywhere.  So I matched changes in stream length across the Appalachian Mountains and actually found some pretty big differences.  At some of my sites, stream length is really stable and hardly changes across a huge range of flows, but at other sites there’s a lot of expansion and contraction: stream length varies from tens of feet to a couple of miles.  And this work is relevant for pretty much any application that requires knowing where streams are and when they have water.  So where to build stuff; how to build stuff; where you need riparian buffers of trees to protect water quality.  And normally we rely on maps for this information.  But the blue lines representing streams on maps don’t tell us if the stream has water all the time, or 75 percent of the time, or maybe only once every couple of years.  So research describing and predicting these changes in stream length can help us better manage and protect our water resources.  Thank you.”

As Ms. Jensen’s work shows, there’s much to know about headwaters, and such information can help us better understand quantity and quality patterns far downstream.

Thanks to Carrie Jensen for permission to use the audio from her Nutshell Games talk.  Thanks also to Andrew VanNorstand for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with about 15 more seconds of “Highland.”

MUSIC - ~17 sec – instrumental


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This Virginia Water Radio episode revises and replaces Episode 397, 12-4-17.

The Nutshell Games are organized by the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science to give graduate students a forum for describing their research in a short presentation designed for non-scientists.  More information about the Center for Communicating Science is available online at  Nutshell Games videos are available online at  Two news articles about the Nutshell Games are New center focuses on the art of communicating science effectively, Virginia Tech News, 2/28/17; and Understandable communication aim of first 'Nutshell Games', Roanoke Times, 3/3/17.

“Highland,” from the 2018 album “Wake Up Robin,” on Great Bear Records, by the group of the same name, is used with permission of Andrew VanNorstrand.  More information about the album and band is available online at

The sounds of headwater streams heard in this episode were recorded in Blacksburg, Va.’s Heritage Park on July 27, 2016, and in Blacksburg on Brush Mountain on January 31, 2010 (the latter stream is shown in the photos below).

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at


Two views of a headwaters stream tributary to Toms Creek (New River basin) on Brush Mountain in Blacksburg, Va.: upper photo December 25, 2013; lower photo December 2, 2017.


Used for Audio

Richard B. Alexander et al., “The Role of Headwater Streams in Downstream Water Quality,” Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Vol. 43, No. 1, February 2007, pages 41-59; available online at (subscription may be required).

Carrie Jensen, “Project Report, 2016 VWRRC Student Grant: Sensors reveal the timing and pattern of stream flow in headwaters after storms,” July 10, 2017, Virginia Water Resources Research Center, Blacksburg.

Sacramento [Calif.] River Watershed Program, “Importance of the Headwaters,” by Todd Sloat, 9/21/14, online at

Craig Snyder, et al., “Significance of Headwater Streams and Perennial Springs in Ecological Monitoring in Shenandoah National Park,” 2013, U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2013–1178; available online (as a PDF) at

U.S. Geological Survey, “Water Resources of the United States/Water Basics Glossary/Headwaters,” online at

U.S. Geological Survey, “Water Science School/Glossary/Headwater,” online at

Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science, online at 

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, “The Importance of Headwater Streams,” online at

For More Information about Watersheds and River Basins 

Natural Resources Conservation Service/Virginia, “2020 Virginia Water Resources Progress Report,” online at  This report has descriptions of projects in many Virginia watersheds.  The 2017 report is online at

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “How’s My Waterway,” online at

U.S. Geological Survey, “Water Science School/Watersheds and Drainage Basins,” online at

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, “Hydrologic Unit Geography,” online at; and “Virginia’s Major Watersheds,” online at

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, “Commonwealth of Virginia State Water Resources Plan,” April 2015, available online at; “Status of Virginia’s Water Resources,” October 2020, online (as a PDF) at; and “Water Quantity,” online at

Virginia Places, “The Continental (and Other) Divides,” online at

Virginia Places, “Rivers and Watersheds of Virginia,” online at

Virginia Water Resources Research Center, “Divide and Confluence,” by Alan Raflo, pages 8-11 in Virginia Water Central Newsletter, February 2000, online at 


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above ( 

Following are links to some other episodes on watersheds and Virginia river basins.  Please note that some of these episodes are being redone in summer 2021, so the episode number, date, and link may change.

Big Otter River introduction (Roanoke River watershed) – Episode 419, 5-7-18.

Big Sandy River watershed introduction – Episode 419, 5-7-18.

Blue Ridge and three watersheds - Episode 209, 4-14-14.

Bullpasture and Cowpasture rivers introduction (James River watershed) – Episode 469, 4-22-19.

Hazel River introduction (Rappahannock River watershed) – Episode 339, 10-24-16.

Jackson River introduction (James River watershed) – Episode 428, 7-9-19.

Madison County flooding in 1995 (on Rapidan River, in Rappahannock River watershed) – Episode 272, 6-29-15

Musical tour of rivers and watersheds - Episode 251, 2-2-15.

New River introduction – Episode 109, 5-7-12.

Ohio River basin introduction – Episode 421, 5-21-18.

Ohio River basin connections through watersheds and history – Episode 422, 5-28-18;

Passage Creek and Fort Valley introduction (Shenandoah River watershed) – Episode 331 – 8/29/16.

River bluffs – Episode 173, 8-5-13.

Rappahannock River introduction – Episode 89, 11-21-11.

Shenandoah River introduction – Episode 130 – 10/1/12.

Smith River and Philpott Reservoir introduction (Roanoke River watershed) – Episode 360, 3-20-17.

South Fork Holston River introduction (Clinch-Powell/Upper Tennessee River watershed) – Episode 425, 6-18-18.

Staunton River introduction (part of the Roanoke River) – Episode 374, 6-26-17.

Virginia rivers quiz – Episode 334, 9-19-16.

Virginia surface water numbers – Episode 539, 8-24-20.

Virginia’s Tennessee River tributaries – Episode 420, 5-14-18.

Water cycle introduction – Episode 191, 12-9-13; and water cycle diagrams reconsidered – Episode 480, 7-8-19.

Watershed and water cycle terms related to stormwater – EP365 – 4/24/17.

Watersheds introduction – Episode 581, 6-14-21.

Water quantity information sources – Episode 546, 10-12-20.

Werowocomoco native people’s civilization history, centered in the York River watershed – Episode 364, 12-12-16.

Following are links to other episodes with information from presentations at the Nutshell Games, produced by the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Sciences.

Episode 376, 7-10-17 – on the Emerald Ash Borer.
Episode 409, 2-26-18 – on buried streams.
Episode 564, 2-15-21 – on customers' trust in their water utility.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2020 Music SOLs 

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes

3.5 – Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of organisms.

4.3 – Organisms, including humans, interact with one another and with the nonliving components in the ecosystem.

Grades K-5: Earth and Space Systems

2.7 – Weather patterns and seasonal changes affect plants, animals, and their surroundings.

3.7 – There is a water cycle and water is important to life on Earth.

4.4 – Weather conditions and climate have effects on ecosystems and can be predicted.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources

3.8 – Natural events and humans influence ecosystems.

4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6

6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environment.

6.8 – Land and water have roles in watershed systems.

Life Science

LS.5 – Biotic and abiotic factors affect an ecosystem.

LS.8 – Change in ecosystems, communities, populations, and organisms occur over time. 

Earth Science

ES.8 – Freshwater resources influence and are influenced by geologic processes and human activity.


BIO.8 – Dynamic equilibria exist within populations, communities, and ecosystems.

2015 Social Studies SOLs 

World Geography Course

WG.2 – How selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

WG.4 – Types and significance of natural, human, and capital resources.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.

Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.

Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.

Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.

Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.

Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.

Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.

Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.

Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.

Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.