Why Is It A Creek?

Two of my son’s friends live in an apartment complex that has to be reached by crossing a bridge. One day, when we’re going to visit them, my son looks over the bridge and cheerfully announces that “They’ve got a lake!”

“It’s not a lake,” my wife corrects him. “It’s a creek.”

“Why is it a creek?” he asks.

You know what? I haven’t the slightest idea. Growing up I’d heard of rivers, and streams, and creeks, and criks (the latter being a word I’ve only ever heard in Kentucky, and may just be “creek” with an accent). As a child, I’d simply assumed that rivers were big, streams were medium-sized, creeks were small, and criks were really small. Turns out, though, that I don’t actually know. So I turned to the Internet, and ended up at Duhaime’s Law Dictionary.

The dictionary defines a river as: “a watercourse with a current and which is of capacity to be navigated”. Fair enough. So, what’s a watercourse? Well, according to the dictionary, it is “a stream usually flowing in a particular direction, in a definite channel, having a bed or banks, though it need not flow continually”. What’s a stream (), then? “A watercourse having banks and channel through which waters flow, at least periodically”.

Recursion is a popular technique in law, apparently.

The discussion in the definition of “river” muddies the water (so to speak), because navigable doesn’t seem to mean what you think it would mean. I mean, [i]I[/i] assumed that “navigable” means “you can navigate on it”. That is, boats can travel on it. But, in the United States at least, that’s not what it means. 33 CFR 329.4 (Definition of Navigable Waters of the United States) defines it in this fashion:

Navigable waters of the United States are those waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce. A determination of navigability, once made, applies laterally over the entire surface of the waterbody, and is not extinguished by later actions or events which impede or destroy navigable capacity.

So, a river is a watercourse with a current that is subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, or that is (or has been) used to transport interstate or foreign commerce. Presumably, then, if it doesn’t cross state lines or feed into the ocean, then it isn’t a river.

But wait! It’s more complicated than that! In State v. Bonelli Cattle Company, the Arizona supreme court stated:

Obviously, a river does not have to flow continuously across the whole of its bed to the high water mark in order to avoid a claim by abutting owners to a part of the river’s bed. The channel of a river is the bed of the stream over which its waters run, Benjamin v. Manistee River Imp. Co., 42 Mich. 628, 4 N.W. 483, and the bed of a river is the space contained between its banks, Pulley v. Municipality No. 2, 18 La. 278.

And in Mogle v. Moore, the California Supreme Court stated:

Surface waters are defined as waters falling upon and naturally spreading over lands. They may come from seasonal rains, melting snows, swamps or springs, or from all of them. Surface waters consist of surface drainage falling on or flowing from and over a tract or tracts of land before 9*9 such waters have found their way into a natural watercourse. (26 Cal.Jur., p. 279, and cases cited.)

A stream is a watercourse having a source and terminus, banks and channel, through which waters flow, at least periodically. Streams usually empty into other streams, lakes, or the ocean, but a stream does not lose its character as a watercourse even though it may break up and disappear. (Hellman etc. Bank v. Southern Pacific Co., 190 Cal. 626 [214 P. 46].) Streams are usually formed by surface waters gathering together in one channel and flowing therein. The waters then lose their character as surface waters and become stream waters. (Lindblom v. Round Valley Water Co., 178 Cal. 450 [173 P. 994]; Horton v. Goodenough, 184 Cal. 451 [194 P. 34]; Gray v. Reclamation District No. 1500, 174 Cal. 622, at p. 650 [163 P. 1024].) As we have observed, a continuous flow of water is not necessary to constitute a stream and its waters stream waters. (San Gabriel Valley Country Club v. Los Angeles County, 182 Cal. 392 [188 P. 554, 9 L.R.A. 1200].)


So. A stream is any watercourse with a source, an ending, and a distinct set of banks and a channel. A river, apparently, is just a stream subject to tidal action, or that is used for interstate commerce. But what on earth is a creek? Well, at this point I’m giving up and going to a regular dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines “creek” as:

  1. chiefly British : a small inlet or bay narrower and extending farther inland than a cove
  2. a natural stream of water normally smaller than and often tributary to a river
  3. archaic : a narrow or winding passage

Origin of CREEK
Middle English crike, creke, from Old NOrse -kriki bend[/quote]

So, there you have it. A creek is a stream that feeds into a river. Unless it’s a narrow bay. And so the creek in front of my friend’s apartment complex is a creek because it’s a stream that feeds into a river.