Plot sampling and hydraulic modeling were combined to investigate establishment and survival of plains cottonwood along Boulder Creek, an urban stream on the Colorado Plains. We tested the hypothesis that establishment is limited to bare, moist surfaces produced by spring flooding in the current year. No cottonwood germination was observed in 1989 when peak flow was low. A moderate peak of 11.9 m3/s in 1990 resulted in cottonwood establishment on surfaces inundated by discharges less than 15 m3/s. Surviving sapling cottonwoods established before 1989 occurred on surfaces inundated by discharges of 15-31 m3/s and dated to years with peak flows over 15 m3/s. Since 1969, establishment of cottonwood has been limited to a floodplain 21 m wide. Flow regulation and channel stabilization upstream and downstream of the study area have reduced the channel movement and overbank flooding that otherwise would have created bare, moist sites suitable for cottonwood establishment across a wider area. GIS analysis of aerial photographs shows that between 1937 and 1992 the channel has not moved and forest has encroached upon formerly open areas near the channel. A terrace, 317 m wide, is now dominated by trees that can reproduce in the absence of disturbance, especially the exotic crack willow.