I’ve been inspired by the work many others have done to capture the qualities of coverage of waterways at national scale both in the US and the UK, and beyond the mapping, appreciate their investigations into the unique distribution of place names, or toponyms. The language of the waterways informs more local hidden hydrology endeavors, and understanding regional vernacular variations provides a snapshot into our varied relationships with water. While a glance at the Pacific Northwest via these other maps shows that the predominant name for waterways is probably going to be either creek or river, I wanted to dive a bit deeper to see what other names are used to denote waterways. To accomplish this, I spent some quality time with the USGS National Hydrography Dataset (NHD) to unlock a bit of the secrets of regional variations.
For starters, the NHD is an amazing resource of information, pulling together a comprehensive collection of data on flowlines, watershed basins, and more and the ability to get data from a variety of formats for small to large basins and states. From their site, the purpose of the data is to: “define the spatial locations of surface waters. The NHD contains features such as lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, canals, dams, and stream gages, in a relational database model system (RDBMS). These data are designed to be used in general mapping and in the analysis of surface water systems.” The first steps are a bit daunting, as the State of Washington included data with over 1.3 million flowlines, seen below in aggregate. The flowlines aren’t any one single waterway, but are the individual segments that make up each creek.
While the data preserves local basins shapes by sprawling outside state lines, I wanted to make this unique to Washington, so needed to clip it to the state boundary. This ended up being a bit of a task for my rather slow computer to crank out the clipping, so I had to think of some alternatives to simplify the dataset. Interestingly enough, over 80 percent of the flowlines (around 1.1 million of them) are unnamed, and while I’m sure are perfectly lovely bits of creek and river, they don’t help in our purpose in terms of deriving place names. Eliminating them also serves the dual benefit of reducing the size of our working dataset quite a bit. After trimming to the state boundaries, we ended up with a nice workable set of around 170,000 flowlines that have names, seen below.
Per the NHD FAQ page, “Many features also are labeled with the geographic name of the feature, such as the Ohio River. The feature names must be approved by the Board of Geographic Names (BGN) in order to qualify for inclusion in the NHD.” More on the BGN and the wonderful assortment of place names that exist in these lists beyond their descriptor (which is perhaps the fuller idea of toponyms), in this case we break down the list and see what comes to the top. Not surprising, but the use of the terms Creek and River dominate the landscape of Washington, accounting for 98% of all named flowlines.
Of the totals, creeks truly dominate, with around a 75% chance that a trickle of water in the state will be referred to as a creek. The larger, less numerous rivers make up 23% of all flowlines, and the map above paints a wonderful portrait of the density of waters. Separated out by type, you see the branched structures of trunk and stem that pumps water through most of the mountainous west side of the state, with the larger, drier plains to the east more open. All total the combined length of these equals over 30,000 linear miles.
So we live in a creek and river area of the world. Amidst these dominating toponyms are a distributed layer of types of flowlines that make up the remainder of the story of Washington, that final 2 percent, emphasized in a darker blue below.
The secondary naming of these includes the most common, isolated and color coded, with a legend denoting the eight most common alternative flowline names.
The relative percentage as a portion of that slim 2% of state flowlines, include:
- Slough (30%)
- Fork (16%)
- Canal (16%)
- Ditch (9%)
- Wasteway (4%)
- Branch (4%)
- Run (4%)
- Stream (3%)
The remaining 14% are composed of small portions that include Lateral, Brook, Drain, Slu (a variation of Slough), Gulch, Channel, Siphon and it’s alternative spelling Syphon, Washout, Waterway, Swale, Glade, Pass, Gate, and Range. Many of these as we see, are geographically located towards the center of the state where agricultural landscape has created larger modifications and creation of waterways (described in the NHD data under the names like Artificial Path, Canal Ditch, and Connector). There’s a split between more traditional waterway name variations (i.e. Slough, Fork, Branch, Run, Stream) and those that mostly utilitarian, capturing the poetry of industrialization (i.e. Wasteway, Ditch, Canal, Siphon, Lateral). Removing the background landform, you see the composite of the different stream types as a whole, with creek/river in blue and the remainder by color.
For a more local view, the NHD data is a bit less sparse, not capturing the same amount of complexity is smaller urban waterways, plus without the other water bodies like lakes the geography seems somewhat off. The purple to the west in the Olympic Pennisula shows a density of flowlines referred to as streams, and the darker red denotes a number of local sloughs that exist in local river systems. It’s harder to see, but you can catch the Ship Canal in this group, and the slightly lighter red fork in the center is the infamous Duwamish Waterway, the lower stretch that runs through Seattle and ‘lost’ its designation as a river – interestingly enough it’s the only flowline in the state with that moniker.
I was expecting the dominance of creeks and rivers in the nomenclature, but was also really surprised that these combined to make up so many of the collective flowlines. Perhaps early settlers and place-namers lacking a bit of creativity. It was also a good surprise to find a wealth of other place names in Washington, albeit many used to describe man-made features, including the most poetic name of wasteway, but enough fun to find an occasional branch, fork, brook, and run, which are more common elsewhere in the United States, per the other US maps.
These are pretty basic graphics exported from GIS just to give a feel for the data, so I’d like to play around more with representation, perhaps some sort of heatmap. Also I’m eyeing Oregon for a comparison, and maybe wanting to dive into the waterbodies as well beyond linear flowlines, so more fun to come. Who knows, an atlas of the whole country with a top ten of their most common names of each state. Or maybe not…
HEADER: Excerpt of River and Stream Composite Map – data from ESRI, NOAA, USGS – Mapping by Jason King – (all maps in post same attribution, © Jason King, Hidden Hydrology, 2018)