An important problem in hydrologic science is understanding how river flow is influenced by rainfall properties and drainage basin characteristics. In this paper we consider one approach, the use of mass exponents, in examining the relation of river flow to rainfall and the channel network, which provides the primary conduit for transport of water to the outlet in a large basin. Mass exponents, which characterize the power-law behavior of moments as a function of scale, are ideally suited for defining scaling behavior of processes that exhibit a high degree of variability or intermittency. The main result in this paper is an expression relating the mass exponent of flow resulting from an instantaneous burst of rainfall to the mass exponents of spatial rainfall and that of the network width function. Spatial rainfall is modeled as a random multiplicative cascade and the channel network as a recursive replacement tree; these fractal models reproduce certain types of self-similar behavior seen in actual rainfall and networks. It is shown that under these modeling assumptions the scaling behavior of flow mirrors that of rainfall if rainfall is highly variable in space, and on the other hand flow mirrors the structure of the network if rainfall is not so highly variable. ?? 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.