This paper reports basinwide patterns of hydrograph alteration via statistical and graphical analysis from a network of long-term streamflow gauges located various distances downstream of major dams and confluences in the Sacramento River basin in California, USA. Streamflow data from 10 gauging stations downstream of major dams were divided into hydrologic series corresponding to the periods before and after dam construction. Pre- and post-dam flows were compared with respect to hydrograph characteristics representing frequency, magnitude and shape: annual flood peak, annual flow trough, annual flood volume, time to flood peak, flood drawdown time and interarrival time. The use of such a suite of characteristics within a statistical and graphical framework allows for generalising distinct strategies of flood control operation that can be identified without any a priori knowledge of operations rules. Dam operation is highly dependent on the ratio of reservoir capacity to annual flood volume (impounded runoff index). Dams with high values of this index generally completely cut off flood peaks thus reducing time to peak, drawdown time and annual flood volume. Those with low values conduct early and late flow releases to extend the hydrograph, increasing time to peak, drawdown time and annual flood volume. The analyses reveal minimal flood control benefits from foothill dams in the lower Sacramento River (i.e. dissipation of the down-valley flood control signal). The lower part of the basin is instead reliant on a weir and bypass system to control lowland flooding. Data from a control gauge (i.e. with no upstream dams) suggest a background signature of global climate change expressed as shortened flood hydrograph falling limbs and lengthened flood interarrival times at low exceedence probabilities. This research has implications for flood control, water resource management, aquatic and riparian ecosystems and for rehabilitation strategies involving flow alteration and/or manipulation of sediment supplies. Copyright ?? 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.