We propose a theoretical river modeling framework for generating variable flow patterns in diverted-streams (i.e., no reservoir). Using a simple economic model and the principle of equal marginal utility in an inverse fashion we first quantify the benefit of the water that goes to the environment in relation to that of the anthropic activity. Then, we obtain exact expressions for optimal water allocation rules between the two competing uses, as well as the related statistical distributions. These rules are applied using both synthetic and observed streamflow data, to demonstrate that this approach may be useful in 1) generating more natural flow patterns in the river reach downstream of the diversion, thus reducing the ecodeficit; 2) obtaining a more enlightened economic interpretation of Minimum Flow Release (MFR) strategies, and; 3) comparing the long-term costs and benefits of variable versus MFR policies and showing the greater ecological sustainability of this new approach. (C) 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.