The effects of cold water releases, as a by-product of storing irrigation water in large dams, has been a source of great concern for its impact on native freshwater fish for some time. The Mitta Mitta River, northeast Victoria, is impacted by altered thermal regimes downstream of the fourth largest dam in Australia, Dartmouth dam, with some daily temperatures 10–12°C below normal. Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii peelii) were endemic to the Mitta Mitta River; however, resident Murray cod have not been found in this river since 1992. The response of eggs and hatched larvae from Murray cod to different temperature gradients of water were measured and the post-spawning survival recorded. As a case study, post-spawning survival was then inferred from flow data for each year of operation of Dartmouth Dam, recorded since first operation in 1978, and included in a stochastic population model to explore the impact of the altered (historical) thermal regime on population viability. Experimental results revealed no egg and larval survival below 13°C and predicted historical temperature regimes point to more than 15 years of low temperatures in the Mitta Mitta River. Population modelling indicates that the impact of cold water releases on post-spawning survival is a significant threatening process to the viability of a Murray cod population. Additionally, we consider changes to the thermal regime to explore how the thermal impact of large dams may be minimized on downstream fish populations through incrementally increasing the temperature of the releases. The modelled Murray cod population responds to minor increases in the thermal regime; however, threats are not completely removed until an increase of at least 5–6°C. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.