Tamarix ramosissima is a naturalized, nonnative plant species which has become widespread along riparian corridors throughout the western United States. We test the hypothesis that the distribution and success of Tamarix result from human modification of river-flow regimes. We conducted a natural experiment in eight ecoregions in arid and semiarid portions of the western United States, measuring Tamarix and native Populus recruitment and abundance at 64 sites along 13 perennial rivers spanning a range of altered flow regimes. We quantified biologically relevant attributes of flow alteration as an integrated measure (the index of flow modification, IFM), which was then used to explain between-site variation in abundance and recruitment of native and nonnative riparian plant species. We found the likelihood of successful recruitment of Tamarix to be highest along unregulated river reaches and to remain high across a gradient of regulated flows. Recruitment probability for Populus, in contrast, was highest under free-flowing conditions and declined abruptly under even slight flow modification (IFM > 0.1). Adult Tamarix was most abundant at intermediate levels of IFM. Populus abundance declined sharply with modest flow regulation (IFM > 0.2) and was not present at the most flow-regulated sites. Dominance of Tamarix was highest along rivers with the most altered flow regimes. At the 16 least regulated sites, Tamarix and Populus were equally abundant. Given observed patterns of Tamarix recruitment and abundance, we infer that Tamarix would likely have naturalized, spread, and established widely in riparian communities in the absence of dam construction, diversions, and flow regulation in western North America. However, Tamarix dominance over native species would likely be less extensive in the absence of human alteration of river-flow regimes. Restoration that combines active mechanical removal of established stands of Tamarix with a program of flow releases conducive to native species establishment and persistence is hypothesized to facilitate the codominance of Populus in reaches where it has become rare. Our findings have implications for planning flow-related stream restoration, for developing realistic expectations for yield on investment in prescribed flow releases, and for planning flow-related interventions that might be possible if control and management of invasive plant species along rivers is a goal.