Natural levées of the Columbia River near Golden, British Columbia, were investigated to identify the mechanisms that control levée development and morphology. Topographic profiles of 12 levée pairs were surveyed, and measurements of water-surface elevation, flow velocity, flow direction and turbidity were obtained during an average magnitude flood (1·2 years recurrence interval). Sedimentation rates and grain-size distributions were measured from sediment traps placed along levée-to-floodbasin transects. Results show that water and sediment exchange between the channel and floodbasin was mainly by advection. During flooding, local floodbasins behave more as efficient water pathways than water storage features, resulting in down-valley floodbasin flows capable of limiting basinward growth of levées. Levée shape results primarily from two independent factors: (1) maximum channel water stage, which limits levée height; and (2) floodbasin hydraulics, which control width. In the Columbia River, the competence of floodbasin flows results in relatively narrow and steep levées. Natural levées grow under two general conditions of deposition as governed by flood-stage elevation relative to levée-crest elevation: front loading and back loading. During large floods when crests are inundated, front loading preferentially aggrades the proximal portions of levées with sediment directly from the channel, thus increasing levée slope. During average or below-average floods when many levée crests are not overtopped, back loading preferentially aggrades the distal levée areas and floodbasin floor, reducing levée slope. In the study area, a balance between front and back loading sustains these narrow and steep levée shapes for long periods, reflecting an equilibrium between hydraulic regime, floodplain morphology and deposition.