Populations of the Australian freshwater snail Notopala sublineata (Conrad, 1850) have declined rapidly over the last decade, but are still abundant in most river systems of Western Queensland. These rivers are characterized by the unpredictable and highly variable nature of their climatic and hydrological regimes, with episodic periods of very large flow and many periods of little or no flow. We used mitochondrial sequences and allozymes to investigate the genetic structure and infer patterns of dispersal of N. sublineata within this unique environment. We sampled 24 waterholes throughout the four major catchments of the Lake Eyre Basin. Based on a 457-bp fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase subunit I gene, we identified 55 haplotypes in a sample of 256 individuals. Both nuclear and mitochondrial genetic datasets indicated high levels of genetic subdivision and restricted gene flow among populations within and among catchments. The mitochondrial haplotypes clustered into two main geographical clades, corresponding with two groups of adjacent catchments: Cooper–Bulloo and Diamantina–Georgina, which appear to have diverged 300 000 years ago. Populations of N. sublineata within these adjacent catchments seem to have diverged relatively recently, roughly 130 000 years ago. Contemporary dispersal seems to be absent between catchments but we suggest that climate fluctuations during the Pleistocene resulted in extensive floods that promoted historical movement of aquatic organisms across catchment boundaries. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 88, 1–16.