Natural river flow regimes provide an array of ecological and social functions by sustaining the health of riverine ecosystems. To identify the hydrologic alterations in the lower Yellow River basin caused by natural factors and human activities, we developed multistage hydrologic analysis to investigate the temporal variability of the river's flow regimes. We used a cumulative departure curve and Mann–Whitney–Pettitt nonparametric tests to determine possible change points based on hydrologic data from 1950 to 2006. We then used the range of variability approach to characterize and to quantify the temporal variability of the hydrologic regimes that were associated with perturbations such as dam operation, flow diversions or intensive conversion of land use within the watershed. In the case study, three stages in hydrologic alterations of the flow regime were found: a stage without human impacts, a stage with excessive human impacts and a reservoir-regulation stage. Our results indicated that (i) after 1997, dam operation efficiently achieved flood control using sediment regulation activities; (ii) although effective in flood control, the Xiaolangdi Reservoir could not handle situations with extremely low flow, such as during droughts; and (iii) under the arid climate of the Yellow River basin, water consumption by agriculture was the main cause of water shortages. The current study shows that multistage hydrologic analysis can greatly assist regional water resources management and the restoration of riparian eco-environmental systems affected by dam construction under a changing environment. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.