Waterfalls and rapids. Before the bed of a stream is reduced to grade it may be broken by abrupt descents which give rise to waterfalls and rapids. Such breaks in a river’s bed may belong to the initial surface over which it began its course; still more commonly are they developed in the rock mass through which it is cutting its valley. Thus, wherever a stream leaves harder rocks to flow over softer ones the latter are quickly worn below the level of the former, and a sharp change in slope, with a waterfall or rapid, results.
At time of flood young tributaries with steeper courses than that of the trunk stream may bring down stones and finer waste, which the gentler current cannot move along, and throw them as a dam across its way. The rapids thus formed are also ephemeral, for as the gradient of the tributaries is lowered the main stream becomes able to handle the smaller and finer load which they discharge.
A rare class of falls is produced where the minor tributaries of a young river are not able to keep pace with their master stream in the erosion of their beds because of their smaller volume, and thus join it by plunging over the side of its gorge. But as the river approaches grade and slackens its down cutting, the tributaries sooner or later overtake it, and effacing their falls, unite with it on a level.
Waterfalls and rapids of all kinds are evanescent features of a river’s youth. Like lakes they are soon destroyed, and if any long time had already elapsed since their formation they would have been obliterated already.
Local baselevels. That balanced condition called grade, where a river neither degrades its bed by erosion nor aggrades it by deposition, is first attained along reaches of soft rocks, ungraded outcrops of hard rocks remaining as barriers which give rise to rapids or falls. Until these barriers are worn away they constitute local baselevels, below which level the stream, up valley from them, cannot cut. They are eroded to grade one after another, beginning with the least strong, or the one nearest the mouth of the stream. In a similar way the surface of a lake in a river’s course constitutes for all inflowing streams a local baselevel, which disappears when the basin is filled or drained.
Maturity is the stage of a river’s complete development and most effective work. The river system now has well under way its great task of wearing down the land mass which it drains and carrying it particle by particle to the sea. The relief of the land is now at its greatest; for the main channels have been sunk to grade, while the divides remain but little worn below their initial altitudes. Ground water now stands low. The run-off washes directly to the streams, with the least delay and loss by evaporation in ponds and marches; the discharge of the river is therefore at its height. The entire region is dissected by stream ways. The area of valley slopes is now largest and sheds to the streams a heavier load of waste than ever before. At maturity the river system is doing its greatest amount of work both in erosion and in the carriage of water and of waste to the sea.