The use of precipitation estimates from weather radar reflectivity has become widespread in hydrologic predictions. However, uncertainty remains in the use of the nonlinear reflectivity–rainfall (Z-R) relation, in particular for mountainous regions where ground validation stations are often lacking, land surface data sets are inaccurate and the spatial variability in many features is high. In this study, we assess the propagation of rainfall errors introduced by different Z-R relations on distributed hydrologic model performance for four mountain basins in the Colorado Front Range. To do so, we compare spatially integrated and distributed rainfall and runoff metrics at seasonal and event time scales during the warm season when convective storms dominate. Results reveal that the basin simulations are quite sensitive to the uncertainties introduced by the Z-R relation in terms of streamflow, runoff mechanisms and the water balance components. The propagation of rainfall errors into basin responses follows power law relationships that link streamflow uncertainty to the precipitation errors and streamflow magnitude. Overall, different Z-R relations preserve the spatial distribution of rainfall relative to a reference case, but not the precipitation magnitude, thus leading to large changes in streamflow amounts and runoff spatial patterns at seasonal and event scales. Furthermore, streamflow errors from the Z-R relation follow a typical pattern that varies with catchment scale where higher uncertainties exist for intermediate-sized basins. The relatively high error values introduced by two operational Z-R relations (WSR-57 and NEXRAD) in terms of the streamflow response indicate that site-specific Z-R relations are desirable in the complex terrain region, particularly in light of other uncertainties in the modelling process, such as model parameter values and initial conditions. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.