Determination of ecological responses to river flows is fundamental to understanding how flow-dependent ecosystems have been altered by regulation, water diversions and climate change, and how to effect river restoration. Knowledge of ecohydrological relationships can support water management and policy, but this is not always the case. Management rules have tended to be developed ahead of scientific knowledge. The lag between practice and knowledge could be addressed by using historical monitoring data on ecological responses to changes in flows to determine significant empirical ecohydrological relationships, as an adjunct to investigating responses prospectively. This possibility was explored in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia. We assessed 359 data sets collected during monitoring programs across the basin. Of these, only 32 (9%) were considered useful, based on a match between the scale at which sampling was done and ecological responses are likely to occur, and used to test flow–ecology predictions for phytoplankton, macroinvertebrates, fishes, waterbirds, floodplain trees, basin-scale vegetation and estuarine biota. We found relationships between flow and ecological responses were likely to be more strongly supported for large, long-lived, widespread biota (waterbirds, basin-scale vegetation, native fishes), than for more narrowly distributed (e.g. estuarine fishes) or smaller, short-lived organisms (e.g. phytoplankton, macroinvertebrates). This pattern is attributed to a mismatch between the design of monitoring programs and the response time frames of individual biota and processes, and to the use of local river discharge as a primary predictor variable when, for many biotic groups, other predictors need to be considered.