This study examines the ecological effects of serial impoundments (three dams) on a rocky upland stream in southeastern Australia. Physical, chemical and biological changes were quantified and interpreted within a three-level hierarchy of effects model developed previously by Petts [1984, Impounded Rivers. John Wiley and Sons, New York] and the Australian Rivers Assessment System (AUSRIVAS) to predict pre-dam biota. First-order effects were decreased median monthly discharges and floods of lesser magnitude following construction of the dams. No effect on water characteristics (pH, electrical conductivity and major ions) was evident. The second-order effect on channel morphology was a decrease in bank-full cross-sectional area by up to 75% because of reduced flows. At all sites, the predominantly cobble streambed was armoured and generally highly stable. The discharge required to initiate movement of the streambed surface sediments (38.9 m3 s−1) was 40% less frequent since construction of the dams, implying alteration to the natural disturbance regime for benthic biota. Benthic algal growth appeared more prolific at sites directly below dams. Fewer macroinvertebrate taxa than expected and modified assemblages within 1 km of all three dams were third-order effects. Compared to reference conditions, macroinvertebrate samples from the sites directly below the dams had relatively more Chironomidae larvae, Oligochaeta and Acarina, and fewer of the more sensitive taxa, Plecoptera, Ephemeroptera, Trichoptera and Coleoptera. Biological recovery to the macroinvertebrate assemblage was evident within 4 km downstream of the second dam.