Atomic force microscopy (AFM) has been used to image and quantify riverine colloids in a quantitative and relatively nonperturbing manner. Three main classes of material have been imaged including fibrils (about 10 nm in diameter and 100 nm or more in length), discrete, near-spherical, small colloids primarily below 30-50 nm in diameter, and a surface film, of at least several nanometers thickness, which coats the entire mica surface within 30 min of exposure to river water. Colloid structure was found to vary as a function of pH, particularly at high pH. Substantially different structures were observed at high pH values, with the loss of the near-spherical colloids possibly due to rearrangement and aggregation. In addition, film thicknesses of up to 100 nm were estimated on the silicon nitride AFM cantilever after 30 h of deposition in the same water (unperturbed and size fractionated). The observation of these surface films has important implications for understanding the mechanisms by which colloids might bind trace elements. In particular, development of surface coatings implies that binding of pollutants (at least initial surface binding) may be dominated by adsorbed surface layers.