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North Carolina's River Basins


What is a River Basin?

A river basin is the portion of land drained by a river and its tributaries. It encompasses all of the land surface dissected and drained by many streams and creeks that flow downhill into one another, and eventually into one river. The final destination is an estuary or an ocean. As a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides, a river basin sends all the water falling on the surrounding land into a central river and out to the sea.

Everyone lives in a river basin. Even if we don't live near the water, we live on land that drains to a river or estuary or lake, and our actions on that land affect water quality and quantity far downstream. There are 17 river basins in North Carolina, draining 52,337 square miles of surface and underground waters. The topography of each basin determines the area that it drains, and whether that water - from creeks, rivers, springs, and aquifers - flows into the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

When rain falls on your street, roof or yard, what creek or river will it flow through on its way downhill towards the sea? When you drain your bathtub or sink, where does the water go? When you turn on your tap to get a drink of water, where does the water come from?

As an artery connects the parts of a body to one another, so a river threads together the creeks and streams, valleys and hills, lakes and underground springs that share a common assembly of water. Whatever happens to surface or groundwater in one part of the river basin will find its way to other parts. If water is diverted out of its downward course in one section, other parts will come to "know" of its absence. A river basin comes closer than any other defined area of land, with the exception of an isolated island, to meeting the definition of an ecosystem in which all things, living and non-living, are connected and interdependent.

What is the difference between a river basin and a watershed?
Both river basins and watersheds are areas of land that drain to a particular water body, such as a lake, stream, river or estuary. In a river basin, all the water drains to a large river. The term watershed is used to describe a smaller area of land that drains to a smaller stream, lake or wetland. There are many smaller watersheds within a river basin.

The Office of EE, in partnership with other DENR divisions including the Division of Water Quality and the Wildlife Resources Commission, has created informative river basin education materials.

Educator's Guide: Download the following guide for activities and curricula correlated to the River Basins materials and the N.C. Essential Standards!



River Basin Publications Order Form

Your one stop shop for River Basin Publications! Please fill out this form if you would like to receive any of our River Basin publications in the mail.


Discover NC's River Basin Booklet

Check out Discover NC's River Basins, a free booklet with information on what river basins are, why they matter and how people affect them.


NC's River Basins Interactive Map

Clicking on each basin of our interactive map will lead you to River Basin brochures that highlight the unique ecology, environmental concerns and successes of each basin.

Division of Water Quality- Basin Wide Planning

Click here to see official water quality plans for each of the river basins from the Division of Water Quality, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources