The lowest level to which a river can erode its bed is called base level. Sea level is the ultimate base level, but the floor of a lake or basin into which a river flows may become a local and temporary base level. Cliffs or escarpments and differences in the resistance of rocks create irregularities in the bed of a river and can thus cause rapids and waterfalls. A river tends to eliminate irregularities and to form a smooth gradient from its source to its base level. As it approaches base level, downward cutting is replaced by lateral cutting, and the river widens its bed and valley and develops a sinuous course that forms exaggerated loops and bends called meanders. A river may open up a new channel across the arc of a meander, thereby cutting off the arc and creating an oxbow lake.
Rivers modify topography by deposition as well as by erosion. River velocity determines quantity and size of rock fragments and sediment carried by the river. When the velocity is checked by changes of flow or of gradient, by meeting the water mass of lakes or oceans, or by the spreading of water when a stream overflows its banks, part of the load carried by the stream is deposited in the riverbed or beyond the channel. Landforms produced by deposition include the delta, the floodplain, the channel bar, and the alluvial fan and cone.
The discharge, or rate of outflow, of a river depends on the width of its channel and on its velocity. Velocity is governed by the volume of water, the slope of the bed, and the shape of the channel (which determines the amount of frictional resistance). River volume is affected by duration and rate of precipitation in the drainage basin of the river. A river system may be enlarged by piracy, or the process by which one river, cutting through the divide that separates its drainage basin from that of another river, diverts the waters of the other into its own channel.
Traditionally river systems have been classified according to their stage of development as young, mature, or old. The young river is marked by a steepsided valley, steep gradients, and irregularities in the bed; the mature river by a valley with a wide floor and flaring sides, by advanced headward erosion by tributaries, and by a more smoothly graded bed; and the old river by a course graded to base level and running through a peneplain, or broad flat area. The age classification of rivers is diminishing in popularity now that quantitative studies of river behavior are more common.