Dam releases used to create downstream flows that mimic historic floods in timing, peak magnitude and recession rate are touted as key tools for restoring riparian vegetation on large regulated rivers. We analysed a flood on the 5th-order Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam, Colorado, in a broad alluvial valley where Fremont cottonwood riparian forests have senesced and little recruitment has occurred since dam completion in 1962. The stable post dam flow regime triggered the development of novel riparian communities with dense herbaceous plant cover. We monitored cottonwood recruitment on landforms inundated by a managed flood equal in magnitude and timing to the average pre-dam flood. To understand the potential for using managed floods as a riparian restoration tool, we implemented a controlled and replicated experiment to test the effects of artificially modified ground layer vegetation on cottonwood seedling establishment. Treatments to remove herbaceous vegetation and create bare ground included herbicide application (H), ploughing (P), and herbicide plus ploughing (H + P). Treatment improved seedling establishment. Initial seedling densities on treated areas were as much as 1200% higher than on neighbouring control (C) areas, but varied over three orders of magnitude among the five locations where manipulations were replicated. Only two replicates showed the expected seedling density rank of (H + P) > P > H> C. Few seedlings established in control plots and none survived 1 year. Seedling density was strongly affected by seed rain density. Herbivory affected growth and survivorship of recruits, and few survived nine growing seasons. Our results suggest that the novel plant communities are ecologically and geomorphically resistant to change. Managed flooding alone, using flows equal to the pre-dam mean annual peak flood, is an ineffective riparian restoration tool where such ecosystem states are present and floods cannot create new habitat for seedling establishment. This problem significantly limits long-term river and riparian management options. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.