What is a tributary?

As always, I enjoyed Michelle Turner’s latest piece on where the two great rivers meet. It jogged my memory back to a program I attended years ago by noted lecturer John Lynn. 

He had canoed the entire Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans.

He made the comment that at the point where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers meet, that in normal pool the Missouri, in addition to being three times the length of the Mississippi and draining a much larger area, is also larger in water volume. 

He also noted that at Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio and Mississippi meet, the Ohio likewise has a larger normal flow than the Mississippi. 

I asked him after the program if I had heard right and he confirmed that was what I had heard. I called the Corps of Engineers and checked with them and they confirmed that to be true.

To me the obvious question was then why is the Missouri a tributary of the Mississippi, and the Ohio River likewise? 

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