Hyporheic exchange is the mixing of surface and shallow subsurface water through porous sediment surrounding a river and is driven by spatial and temporal variations in channel characteristics (streambed pressure, bed mobility, alluvial volume and hydraulic conductivity). The significance of hyporheic exchange in linking fluvial geomorphology, groundwater, and riverine habitat for aquatic and terrestrial organisms has emerged in recent decades as an important component of conserving, managing, and restoring riverine ecosystems. Here, we review the causes and environmental effects of hyporheic exchange, and provide a simple mathematical framework for examining the mechanics of exchange. A companion paper explores the potential effects of channel morphology on exchange processes and the hyporheic environments that may result in mountain basins (Buffington and Tonina 2009).