The river reach is a pervasive term within contemporary river research and applications. Yet, despite its prevalence, there is a notable lack of consistency in its definition. This paper identifies the presence of two broad types of reach definition within the academic literature, operational and functional, and argues that a functional definition is more suitable for applications within river research and management. A range of sequence zonation algorithms that were originally derived for geological well-log analysis were compared for their ability to automatically identify functional reach boundaries. An analysis of variance-based global boundary hunting algorithm was identified as the most suitable. To demonstrate the potential practical applications of automatic reach delineation methods, two case studies where functional reach boundaries have been identified were described: first, in a sequence of predicted sediment transport capacities for use in a reach-based sediment transport model; and second, in a sequence of RHS Habitat Quality Assessment scores for identification of lengths of channel in need of habitat restoration efforts. Finally, the paper discusses how this type of functional reach identification procedure might be applied in other areas of river research and applications and how a multivariate version of a statistical zonation algorithm might prove useful in facilitating integrated catchment management by identifying reach boundaries common across all variables of interest in the system. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.