Providing flows for biota and environmental processes is a challenging water management issue. For society the ability and willingness to allocate water to sustain the environment is increasingly competitive due to escalating demand and as a consequence of climate change. In response, an array of environmental flow (E-flow) methods have developed. Our view is that few E-flows have been implemented and even fewer evaluated in a research and management context. Much of our science effort in E-flows has been directed primarily at method development, with less attention being given to monitoring, evaluation and subsequent revision of E-flow strategies. Our objectives are to highlight the lack of connection between current trends in E-flow literature and theory with assessment of the efficacy and practical application of these methods. Specifically, effective E-flows need to be explicit about flow-ecology relationships to adequately determine the amount and timing of water required. We briefly outline the historical development of E-flows and discuss how serial development of methods and techniques has restricted implementation, evaluation and revision. We highlight areas where methods are lacking, such as incorporation of data on flow-ecology relationships into operational use of E-flow methods. We suggest four initial steps that will improve the applicability, implementation and ultimate success of E-flows. © 2014 CSIRO .