This study focused on a spatial and temporal analysis of the active channel and associated floodplain lakes using aerial photographs spanning five decades (1942, 1962, 1985, 1999) over a 140 km long reach of the Sacramento. Planimetric changes were analysed longitudinally and temporally to highlight the spatial structures and their evolution through time. The results underline complex changes and space–time pattern in bank erosion, channel length and active channel width. The bank erosion and also channel lengthening were higher between 1962 and 1985 than in the two periods studied before and after. Active channel width significantly decreased from 1942 to 1999; partly progressively from upstream to downstream with local widening whatever the studied periods. Similarly the floodplain lakes observed before 1942–1962 were significantly different in size and geometry from those which appeared during the most recent period. The creation of lakes is less frequent after the 1940s, with a secondary peak of occurrence during the 1962–1985 period. The interpretation of these changes is complex because of various human pressures acting over different time scales (bank protection, flow diversion, sediment starvation, land-use changes) and various natural influences (flood sequences through out the period, geological setting). The findings are discussed by comparison with previous work, and highlight the important effect of dam impact on peak flow and sediment starvation modifying longitudinally hydraulic conditions within the channel, but also the increase in riprap protection which induced change in bank erosion, channel planimetry and floodplain lake characters (geometry, frequency of renewal). Variation in flood intensities is also observed as having positive effects on the bank erosion pattern. Secondarily, land-use changes also controlled bank erosion intensity. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.