Considering Water A state-by-state analysis of our relationship with waterways

June 5, 2014 | by Kathryn Klaber

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water."
- Benjamin Franklin, (1706-1790), Poor Richard's Almanac.

Benjamin Franklin's quote probably captures best our relationship with water – we take it for granted when it is clean and plentiful, and come unglued when it is not.  Our opinions about water are relative to our relationship with the water around us.  One of the hardest parts of valuing water is that its quantity varies so much over time and space.  To better understand these aspects of how we value water, and in particular, how Pennsylvanians perceive water, The Klaber Group developed several simple but useful metrics – Stream Density and Stream Proximity.

This analysis used EPA's data on total stream miles in each state[1] and created simple ratios of stream miles per area of each state and by population, yielding insight into how Pennsylvanians regard water vis-á-vis other states.

Stream Density

Stream density can be described as a measure of stream miles divided by the area through which those streams flow.  The more streams in a given area, the higher the stream density.  Reversely, a large area with relatively few streams will have a low stream density.

The state with the lowest stream density is South Dakota – with 9,937 stream miles (representing 0.3% of the country's total stream miles) and an area of 77,122 square miles (a mid-sized state).  Its stream density is 0.6.

The state with the highest stream density is Pennsylvania – with 83,260 stream miles (representing 2.3% of the country's total stream miles) and an area of 45,310 square miles (a smaller than average sized state).  Its stream density is 1.8.  The state with the most stream miles is Alaska (at 10% of the nation's total), followed by 16 other states with more stream miles than Pennsylvania.

Stream Proximity

Stream proximity can be described as a measure of people in an area[2] divided by stream miles that flow through that area.  More people in a given area result in higher stream proximity.  Reversely, a sparsely populated area with commensurate stream miles will have low stream proximity.

The state with the lowest stream proximity is Alaska at two people per stream mile.  Even though the state includes 10% of our nation's streams, it has the fourth lowest population at 735,132.

The state with the highest stream proximity is New Jersey at 1,380.  Pennsylvania is 34th of the 50 states at 153 people per stream mile.


Water will continue to be a critical ingredient to our nation's sustainable prosperity.  There are certainly significant differences in a business', individual's or community's relationship with surface water depending on their specific location within a state.  And permitting authorities must continue take into consideration the stream-specific conditions.  However, the measures of Stream Density and Stream Proximity can provide policy makers high level insight into differences among states with respect to managing surface water resources.   These measures can also help students and residents better understand the spatial aspects of the water they may, or may not, encounter in their daily lives.

For additional information on this analysis or a copy of the underlying data, please email


[2] 2013 Census estimate