An estuary is a partly enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea.
Estuaries form a transition zone between river environments and maritime environments and are subject to both marine influences, such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water; and riverine influences, such as flows of fresh water and sediment. The inflows of both sea water and fresh water provide high levels of nutrients in both the water column and sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.
Most existing estuaries were formed during the Holocene epoch by the flooding of river-eroded or glacially scoured valleys when the sea level began to rise about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Estuaries are typically classified by their geomorphological features or by water circulation patterns and can be referred to by many different names, such as bays, harbors, lagoons, inlets, or sounds, although some of these water bodies do not strictly meet the above definition of an estuary and may be fully saline.
The banks of many estuaries are amongst the most heavily populated areas of the world, with about 60% of the world's population living along estuaries and the coast. As a result, many estuaries are suffering degradation by many factors, including sedimentation from soil erosion from deforestation, overgrazing, and other poor farming practices; overfishing; drainage and filling of wetlands; eutrophication due to excessive nutrients from sewage and animal wastes; pollutants including heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, radionuclides and hydrocarbons from sewage inputs; and diking or damming for flood control or water diversion.