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Here’s a cool new tool for tracing U.S. rivers to their sources and destinations

If the St. Croix watershed were a state, it would rank 46th in size, 41st in population, and very high in running water.

Sources of the St. Croix river as visualized by the National Atlas' Streamer tool.

My parents were not outdoors people. Just as some people view skydiving as abandonment of a perfectly good airplane, my mom viewed camping, even trailer camping, as a pointless renunciation of plumbing, upholstery and central heat.

My dad took us fishing occasionally, in a dutiful way, but his preferred vantage point for viewing natural beauty was behind the wheel.

Still, we made occasional family forays beyond our neighborhood in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., and the one printed most indelibly in my mental photo album is the Genesee River gorge within Letchworth State Park.

The website for New York state parks describes Letchworth’s portion of the Genesee as “the Grand Canyon of the East.” That may be reaching, but it squares with my young memory of viewing it from a hiking trail that crossed the gorge on an old railroad trestle, and carried us above the churning waters at treetop level.  

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I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon yet, but can say that the wild Genesee and its waterfalls compared favorably with another nearby pair of falls on the Niagara River, visited so often they became routine.

So yesterday, when I opened up a cool new river-tracing tool in the National Atlas of the United States, the Genesee was the river I picked for a first trial run.

Tracing upstream or down

Here’s how the Streamer map works: Make your way across the Google Earth-type interface and use the pointer to click on a favorite stream. Select “Trace Upstream” to see all the surface water sources draining to it, or “Trace Downstream” to see where its waters go. It’s that simple.

(You can also search by name, but even if the name is unusual, you might have difficulties. Looking for Minnehaha Creek took me to Streamer’s default, the Minnehaha Creek in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough, where it drains to Kotzebue Sound and then the Chukchi Sea. There’s another one in Michigan as well.)

Turns out the Genesee drains a fairly small area, its network of tributaries extending into just 10 counties in New York and one in Pennsylvania. This is a compact, north-south watershed except for one long stream coming in from way to the west … nearly to the Niagara … rising somewhere around, let’s see, Lockport — aha! The Erie Canal!

Beyond its terrific imaging, with watersheds laid out over a base map or satellite photography, Streamer’s “Trace Report” button offers two options for generating data about a watershed and its streams.

The summary gives basic geographic data and tallies of the watershed’s streams, cities, counties, states, population and stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The detailed report lists all of the streams and settled places by name, and offers clickable links to the stream gauges, which makes it possible to see, for example, that the Genesee was running at 1,370 cubic feet per second this morning as it passed the Ford Street Bridge in Rochester on its way into Lake Ontario.

Taking measures of the St. Croix

For my introduction to Streamer I thank Greg Seitz, a former colleague at Friends of the Boundary Waters who now blogs over at St. Croix 360. We reconnected awhile back on a paddle trip along the Namekagon River from Cable, Wis., to its confluence with the St. Croix, whose watershed was the next I explored with Streamer. (That’s Greg in the green boat.)

I’m not sure most people realize the St. Croix’s watershed reaches west almost to Mille Lacs, or north almost to Duluth. That’s an area of about 7,760 square miles (a figure I obtained from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; Streamer doesn’t do area measurements for watersheds).

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If the St. Croix watershed were granted statehood, it would rank just below New Jersey in land area and ahead of Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island.

Its population of 1,505,446 would rank it 41st among the states, after Idaho and ahead of Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, South  Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

It would be a state especially rich in flowing water, with 93 rivers and streams running a combined length of 2,092 miles, through 85 cities and 19 counties.

And it might be a state where protecting water quality would be an easier task, with political subdivisions more inclined to cooperate around a shared, central resource than to compete based on policies set beyond its boundaries,  in St. Paul and Madison.

That was John Wesley Powell’s rationale for organizing U.S. states around watersheds, especially but not only in the water-poor regions of the American  West.

I couldn’t help thinking of Powell’s grand, forgotten idea as I wandered around in Streamer. And also, of course, about its high-tech illustration of Norman Maclean’s timeless view that

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

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Update: Last month’s presentation on conservation options for the wolves of Isle Royale is now available for viewing online, thanks to efforts of the International Wolf Center.  

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As I’ve written here earlier, it was a strong and provocative program whose speakers include Rolf Peterson, the longest-serving director of the wolf-moose studies on Isle Royale; David Mech, another venerable wolf researcher; Kevin Proescholdt of Wilderness Watch; and Phyllis Green and Tim Cochrane, the superintendents, respectively, of Isle Royale National Park and Grand Portage National Monument.