1. In an effort to develop quantitative relationships between various kinds of flow alteration and ecological responses, we reviewed 165 papers published over the last four decades, with a focus on more recent papers. Our aim was to determine if general relationships could be drawn from disparate case studies in the literature that might inform environmental flows science and management.
2. For all 165 papers we characterised flow alteration in terms of magnitude, frequency, duration, timing and rate of change as reported by the individual studies. Ecological responses were characterised according to taxonomic identity (macroinvertebrates, fish, riparian vegetation) and type of response (abundance, diversity, demographic parameters). A ‘qualitative’ or narrative summary of the reported results strongly corroborated previous, less comprehensive, reviews by documenting strong and variable ecological responses to all types of flow alteration. Of the 165 papers, 152 (92%) reported decreased values for recorded ecological metrics in response to a variety of types of flow alteration, whereas 21 papers (13%) reported increased values.
3. Fifty-five papers had information suitable for quantitative analysis of ecological response to flow alteration. Seventy per cent of these papers reported on alteration in flow magnitude, yielding a total of 65 data points suitable for analysis. The quantitative analysis provided some insight into the relative sensitivities of different ecological groups to alteration in flow magnitudes, but robust statistical relationships were not supported. Macroinvertebrates showed mixed responses to changes in flow magnitude, with abundance and diversity both increasing and decreasing in response to elevated flows and to reduced flows. Fish abundance, diversity and demographic rates consistently declined in response to both elevated and reduced flow magnitude. Riparian vegetation metrics both increased and decreased in response to reduced peak flows, with increases reflecting mostly enhanced non-woody vegetative cover or encroachment into the stream channel.
4. Our analyses do not support the use of the existing global literature to develop general, transferable quantitative relationships between flow alteration and ecological response; however, they do support the inference that flow alteration is associated with ecological change and that the risk of ecological change increases with increasing magnitude of flow alteration.
5. New sampling programs and analyses that target sites across well-defined gradients of flow alteration are needed to quantify ecological response and develop robust and general flow alteration–ecological response relationships. Similarly, the collection of pre- and post-alteration data for new water development programs would significantly add to our basic understanding of ecological responses to flow alteration.