Measurement of the stable isotopes oxygen-18 and deuterium in water is an important tool to characterize aquifer recharge sources. In the driest areas of the Mediterranean, this application is of special interest due to the scarcity of water and the resulting common incidence of human influence on natural hydrological systems. The Motril-Salobreña detrital aquifer (southern Spain) is a clear example of such an impact as inhabitants have designed irrigation systems and a dam was recently built across the course of the Guadalfeo River, which feeds the aquifer. The sampling of (river or ground) water has allowed the determination of stable isotope contents (oxygen-18 and deuterium), both temporally and spatially, and the relative importance of the main recharge sources in certain sectors. In addition, we were able to infer seasonal trends and to improve existing knowledge of the main flow paths and the position of a seasonal groundwater divide. Data analysis shows evaporation plays a minor role (despite the high temperatures in the zone), scarce rainwater influence, and the overwhelming contribution of recharge from the Guadalfeo River and from the carbonate aquifer (Escalate aquifer) in contact with the Motril-Salobreña aquifer. Irrigation return flow during the summer months comprises the main recharge due to the significant volumes of water that infiltrate. The construction of the dam will almost certainly entail great changes in the current dynamics of the hydrogeology of the Motril-Salobreña aquifer; therefore, knowledge of its behaviour is crucial in order to carry out sustainable use of its groundwater resources. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.