Discharge is a master variable that controls many processes in stream ecosystems. However, there is uncertainty of which discharges are most important for driving particular ecological processes and thus how flow regime may influence entire stream ecosystems. Here the analytical method of effective discharge from fluvial geomorphology is used to analyze the interaction between frequency and magnitude of discharge events that drive organic matter transport, algal growth, nutrient retention, macroinvertebrate disturbance, and habitat availability. We quantify the ecological effective discharge using a synthesis of previously published studies and modeling from a range of study sites. An analytical expression is then developed for a particular case of ecological effective discharge and is used to explore how effective discharge varies within variable hydrologic regimes. Our results suggest that a range of discharges is important for different ecological processes in an individual stream. Discharges are not equally important; instead, effective discharge values exist that correspond to near modal flows and moderate floods for the variable sets examined. We suggest four types of ecological response to discharge variability: discharge as a transport mechanism, regulator of habitat, process modulator, and disturbance. Effective discharge analysis will perform well when there is a unique, essentially instantaneous relationship between discharge and an ecological process and poorly when effects of discharge are delayed or confounded by legacy effects. Despite some limitations the conceptual and analytical utility of the effective discharge analysis allows exploring general questions about how hydrologic variability influences various ecological processes in streams.