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A distributary, or a distributary channel, is a stream that branches off and flows away from a main stream channel. They are a common feature of river deltas. The phenomenon is known as river bifurcation. The opposite of a distributary is a tributary. Distributaries usually occur as a stream nears a lake or the ocean, but they can occur inland as well, such as in an endorheic basin, or when a tributary stream bifurcates as it nears its confluence with a larger stream. In some cases, a minor distributary can "steal" so much water from the main channel that it can become the main route.


Related terms

Common terms to name individual river distributaries in English-speaking countries are arm and channel. They may refer to a distributary that won't rejoin the channel it has branched off (e.g., the North, Middle, and South Arms of the Fraser River, or the West Channel of the Mackenzie River), or one that will (e.g. Annacis Channel and Annieville Channel of the Fraser River, separated by Annacis Island).

In Australia, the term anabranch is used to refer to a distributary that diverts from the main course of the river and rejoins it later. In North America an anabranch is called a braided stream.

Examples of Distributaries


North America

In Louisiana, the Atchafalaya River is an important distributary of the Mississippi River. Because the Atchafalaya takes a steeper route to the Gulf of Mexico than the main channel, it has captured more and more of the Mississippi's flow over several decades, including capturing the Red River, which was formerly a tributary of the Mississippi. The Old River Control Structure, a dam which regulates the outflow from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya, was completed in 1963 to prevent the Atchafalaya from capturing the main flow of the Mississippi and stranding the ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

An example of inland distributaries is the Teton River, a tributary of Henrys Fork in Idaho, which splits into two distributary channels, the North Fork and South Fork, which join Henrys Fork miles apart.

North Two Ocean Creek splits into two distributaries, Pacific Creek and Atlantic Creek, which flow into the different oceans.

South America

The Casiquiare is an inland distributary of the upper Orinoco, which flows southward into the Rio Negro and forms a unique natural canal between the Orinoco and Amazon river systems. It is the largest river on the planet that links two major river systems.



In central Asia Wakhan River is an inland distributary of the Amu River in Afghanistan. Other notable distributaries are the Kollidam River, a distributary of the Kaveri River, and the Hoogli River, a distributary of the Ganges River, both in India. Also, the Munneru is the distributary of the Krishna River.


  • The Nile River has two distributaries, the Rosetta and the Damietta branches. According to Pliny the Elder it had in ancient times seven distributaries (east to west):
    • The Pelusiac
    • The Tanitic
    • The Mendesian
    • The Phatnitic
    • The Sebennytic
    • The Bolbitine
    • The Canopic
See History of the Nile Delta.
  • The Okavango River ends in many distributaries in a large inland delta called the Okavango Delta. It is an example of distributaries that do not flow into any other body of water.


A number of the rivers that flow inland from the Great Dividing Range form distributaries, most of which flow only intermittently during times of high river levels and end in shallow lakes or simply peter out in the deserts. Yarriambiack Creek, which flows from the Wimmera River into Lake Coorong, and Tyrrell Creek, which flows from the Avoca River into Lake Tyrrell, are two distributaries in Victoria.

See also


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




dis- + tribute + -ary




distributary (plural distributaries)

  1. A branch of a river delta; a channel that distributes a river's waters into the sea, as with the Atchafalaya River of the Mississippi.



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