The release of environmental flows for ecological restoration is a challenge for water policymakers and managers as it involves complex trade-offs between productive and ecosystem uses of water. While it is crucial to demonstrate that such environmental flows produce the desired hydro-ecological results, allocation of environmental water is also influenced by perceived social values of this water. This research draws on the sub-field of socio-hydrology to track two-way feedbacks between humans and environmental flows and shows why and how social responses to river restoration can be monitored. Media coverage, posted comments and in-person interviews were used to track the responses of stakeholders who ‘chased’ the progress of the 2014 “pulse flow” down the Colorado River. These data framed in the cultural ecosystem systems typology revealed the temporal patterns and dynamics of dramatic shifts in socio-hydrologic processes and highlight the value of understanding the human wellbeing benefits and complex social values that are affected by freshwater restoration. This experimental and mixed evidence approach is useful for contexts where multiple stakeholders shape water resource management and we suggest it can be used by water decision-makers in their efforts to understand and appropriately respond to the social-ecological dynamics of a changing river system.