Freshwater (Lakes and Rivers) and the Water Cycle

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Freshwater on the land surface is a vital part of the water cycle for everyday human life. On the landscape, freshwater is stored in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and creeks and streams. Most of the water people use everyday comes from these sources of water on the land surface.

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A lake at Interlaken, Switzerland serves many purposes.

Lakes are valuable natural resources, both for human and non-human life.

One part of the water cycle that is obviously essential to all life on Earth is the freshwater existing on the land surface. Just ask your neighbor, a tomato plant, a trout, or that pesky mosquito. Surface water includes the lakes, reservoirs (human-made lakes), ponds, streams (of all sizes, from large rivers to small creeks), canals (human-made lakes and streams), and freshwater wetlands. The definition of freshwater is water containing less than 1,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids, most often salt.

As a part of the water cycle, Earth's surface-water bodies are generally thought of as renewable resources, although they are very dependent on other parts of the water cycle. The amount of water in rivers and lakes is always changing due to inflows and outflows. Inflows to these water bodies will be from precipitation, overland runoff, groundwater seepage, and tributary inflows. Outflows from lakes and rivers include evaporation, movement of water into groundwater, and withdrawals by people. Humans get into the act also, as people make great use of surface water for their needs.

So, the amount and location of surface water changes over time and space, whether naturally or with human help. Certainly during the last ice age when glaciers and snowpacks covered much more land surface than today, life on Earth had to adapt to different hydrologic conditions than those which took place both before and after. And the layout of the landscape certainly was different before and after the last ice age, which influenced the topographical layout of many surface-water bodies today. Glaciers are what made the Great Lakes not only "great, " but also such a huge storehouse of freshwater.


Surface water keeps life going

Satellite photo of Nile River valley, showing plant growth where surface water is plentiful.

Nile Valley in Egypt—Water makes the desert bloom. If you ever wondered if the expression "Water makes the desert bloom" was true, there is no better proof than this satellite picture of the Nile Valley in Egypt. (Credit: NASA)

As this picture of the Nile Delta in Egypt shows, life can even bloom in the desert if there is a supply of surface water (or groundwater) available. Water on the land surface really does sustain life, and this is as true today as it was millions of years ago. I'm sure dinosaurs held their meetings at the local watering hole 100 million years ago, just as antelopes in Africa do today. And, since groundwater is supplied by the downward percolation of surface water, even aquifers are happy for water on the Earth's surface. You might think that fish living in the saline oceans aren't affected by freshwater, but, without freshwater to replenish the oceans they would eventually evaporate and become too saline for even the fish to survive.

As we said, everybody and every living thing congregates and lives where they can gain access to water, especially freshwater. Just ask the 6 billion people living on Earth! Here's a satellite picture of the world at night. The most obvious thing you can see is that people live near the coasts, which, of course, is where water, albeit saline, is located. But the interesting thing in this picture are the lights following the Nile River and Nile Delta in Egypt ( the circled area). In this dry part of the world, surface-water supplies are essential for human communities. And if you check the price of lakefront property in your part of the world, it probably sells for much more than other land.

Usable fresh surface water is relatively scarce

To many people, streams and lakes are the most visible part of the water cycle. Not only do they supply the human population, animals, and plants with the freshwater they need to survive, but they are great places for people to have fun. You might be surprised at how little of Earth's water supply is stored as freshwater on the land surface, as shown in the diagram and table below. Freshwater represents only about three percent of all water on Earth and freshwater lakes and swamps account for a mere 0.29 percent of the Earth's freshwater. Twenty percent of all fresh surface water is in one lake, Lake Baikal in Asia. Another twenty percent (about 5,500 cubic miles (about 23,000 cubic kilometers)) is stored in the Great Lakes. Rivers hold only about 0.006 percent of total freshwater reserves. You can see that life on Earth survives on what is essentially only a "drop in the bucket" of Earth's total water supply! People have built systems, such as large reservoirs and small water towers (like this one in South Carolina, created to blend in with the peach trees surrounding it) to store water for when they need it. These systems allow people to live in places where nature doesn't always supply enough water or where water is not available at the time of year it is needed.

The distribution of water on, in, and above the Earth

The World's Water - Distribution of Earth's Water

The Earth is a watery place. But just how much water exists on, in, and above our planet? About 71 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth's water. Water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers, and even in you and your dog.

This bar chart shows how almost all of Earth's water is saline and is found in the oceans. Of the small amount that is actually freshwater, only a relatively small portion is available to sustain human, plant, and animal life.

  • In the first bar, notice how only 2.5% of Earth's water is freshwater - the amount needed for life to survive.

  • The middle bar shows the breakdown of freshwater. Almost all of it is locked up in ice and in the ground. Only a little more than 1.2% of all freshwater is surface water, which serves most of life's needs.

  • The right bar shows the breakdown of surface freshwater. Most of this water is locked up in ice, and another 20.9% is found in lakes. Rivers make up 0.49% of surface freshwater. Although rivers account for only a small amount of freshwater, this is where humans get a large portion of their water from.


One estimate of global water distribution
Water source Water volume,
in cubic miles
Water volume,
in cubic kilometers
Percent of total water Percent of total freshwater
Fresh groundwater 2,526,000 10,530,000 0.8% 30.1%
Groundwater 5,614,000 23,400,000 1.7% --
Total global water 332,500,000 1,386,000,000 -- --

Source: Gleick, P. H., 1996: Water resources. In Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather, ed. by S. H. Schneider, Oxford University Press, New York, vol. 2, pp. 817-823.


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