There is a global need for management of river flows to be informed by science to protect and restore biodiversity and ecological function while maintaining water supply for human needs. However, a lack of data at large scales presents a substantial challenge to developing a scientifically robust approach to flow management that can be applied at a basin and valley scale. In most large systems, only a small number of aquatic ecosystems have been well enough studied to reliably describe their environmental water requirements. The umbrella environmental asset (UEA) approach uses environmental water requirements developed for information-rich areas to represent the water requirements of a broader river reach or valley. We illustrate this approach in the Murray¿Darling Basin (MDB) in eastern Australia, which was recently subject to a substantial revision of water management arrangements. The MDB is more than 1 million km2 with 18 main river valleys and many thousands of aquatic ecosystems. Detailed eco-hydrologic assessments of environmental water requirements that focused on the overbank, bankfull and fresh components of the flow regime were undertaken at a total of 24 UEA sites across the MDB. Flow needs (e.g. flow magnitude, duration, frequency and timing) were established for each UEA to meet the needs of key ecosystem components (e.g. vegetation, birds and fish). Those flow needs were then combined with other analyses to determine sustainable diversion limits across the basin. The UEA approach to identifying environmental water requirements is a robust, science-based and fit-for-purpose approach to determining water requirements for large river basins in the absence of complete ecological knowledge.