Estimation of benthic macroinvertebrate populations over large spatial scales is difficult due to the high variability in abundance and the cost of sample processing and taxonomic analysis. To determine a cost-effective, statistically powerful sample design, we conducted an exploratory study of the spatial variation of benthic macroinvertebrates in a 37 km reach of the Upper Mississippi River. We sampled benthos at 36 sites within each of two strata, contiguous backwater and channel border. Three standard ponar (525 cm(2)) grab samples were obtained at each site ('Original Design'). Analysis of variance and sampling cost of strata-wide estimates for abundance of Oligochaeta, Chironomidae, and total invertebrates showed that only one ponar sample per site ('Reduced Design') yielded essentially the same abundance estimates as the Original Design, while reducing the overall cost by 63%. A posteriori statistical power analysis (alpha = 0.05, beta = 0.20) on the Reduced Design estimated that at least 18 sites per stratum were needed to detect differences in mean abundance between contiguous backwater and channel border areas for Oligochaeta, Chironomidae, and total invertebrates. Statistical power was nearly identical for the three taxonomic groups. The abundances of several taxa of concern (e.g., Hexagenia mayflies and Musculium fingernail clams) were too spatially variable to estimate power with our method. Resampling simulations indicated that to achieve adequate sampling precision for Oligochaeta, at least 36 sample sites per stratum would be required, whereas a sampling precision of 0.2 would not be attained with any sample size for Hexagenia in channel border areas, or Chironomidae and Musculium in both strata given the variance structure of the original samples. Community-wide diversity indices (Brillouin and 1-Simpsons) increased as sample area per site increased. The backwater area had higher diversity than the channel border area. The number of sampling sites required to sample benthic macroinvertebrates during our sampling period depended on the study objective and ranged from 18 to more than 40 sites per stratum. No single sampling regime would efficiently and adequately sample all components of the macroinvertebrate community.