In urban rivers, flow regime and channel morphology are the drivers of physical habitat quality for aquatic species. Peak discharges are increased at high flows as a result of impermeable catchments and channel engineering for flood protection schemes. Hazardous conditions and flashy hydrographs mean that measurement of velocities at high flows is a difficult task. This research uses a three-dimensional computational fluid dynamics (3D-CFD) model to simulate hydraulic patterns in two urban river channels. A 3D-CFD code, called SSIIM, was used to simulate hydraulic conditions in two engineered river reaches of the River Tame, Birmingham, UK. These two sites represent channels with different levels of engineering. Models were calibrated and tested using field measurements. Results show that modelled water surface levels and velocity profiles are well simulated. Calibrated roughness heights are compared with those derived from field measurement of sediment size. Numerical experiments are used to assess the relationship between grid resolution in the vertical dimension and the form of the modelled velocity profiles. Biologists have used laboratory experiments to determine maximum sustainable swimming speeds (MSSS) of fish, often in order to assess what level of a particular pollutant may be tolerable. In this work, simulations of high-flow hydraulic patterns are used to compare velocity patterns with fish MSSS. Results show that when the water levels rise to fill the first channel of the two-stage channels at the sites, which occurred 16 times in 2000, MSSS are surpassed in the majority of available habitat, suggesting that excessive velocities at high flows are one factor that limits fish habitat. A comparison between the two reaches shows that there is less available habitat in the more modified reach. Conclusions suggest that an approach that integrates water quality issues and physical channel characteristics must be taken in river rehabilitation schemes, as improvements to water quality alone may not be sufficient to improve habitat quality to the desired level. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.