A comprehensive reference system for the Earth's river basins is proposed as a support to fiver basin management, global change research, and the pursuit of sustainable development. A natural system for delineation and codification of basins is presented which is based upon topographic control and the topology of the fiver network. These characteristics make the system well suited for implementation and use with digital elevation models (DEMs) and geographic information systems. A demonstration of these traits is made with the 30-arcsecond GTOPO30 DEM for North America. The system has additional appeal owing to its economy of digits and the topological information that they carry. This is illustrated through presentation of comparisons with USGS hydrologic unit codes and demonstration of the use of code numbers to reveal dependence or independence of water use activities within a basin.