The legal requirement for an Ecological Reserve established in South Africa's water law is commonly regarded by stakeholders as being in direct competition with the needs of humans. This has resulted in much debate and varying interpretations of the meaning and purpose of the Ecological Reserve. However, the requirement for water that is allocated to sustain ecosystem Reserve. However, the requirement for water that is allocated to sustain ecosystem functions is directly aligned with options for human use arising from rivers to deliver a suite of ecosystem goods and services to society. In this paper, we propose a conceptual approach to support a more constructive debate around the role and function of the Reserve in the sustainable use and protection of a suite of benefits to society. The approach proposes that debate be structured around managing for a dynamic ecological state in rivers that would in turn achieve the desired (albeit dynamic) mix of goods and services to a wide range of stakeholders. These stakeholders come from widely differing socio-economic backgrounds, and their needs may be either for the direct use of water and associated resources located within the macro channels of rivers, or for their use in supporting social and economic activity remote from the river. The paper shows how goods and services concepts can provide an approach that contributes to developing a shared understanding that facilitates decisions on water allocations. The implication is that when water allocations can be evaluated comparatively it creates greater awareness of each other's needs and interdependencies and value is attached to a greater diversity of benefits and costs. This in turn allows for opportunities to achieve more equitable recognition and allocation of the resources associated with rivers. The approach assists in making the conceptual link between goods and services that arise from constructed production systems, and those that arise from natural production systems (i.e. ecosystems). Off-site as well as on-site use of river goods and services (the latter being catered for by the Ecological Reserve) can in this way be brought into debate in a way that promotes wider appreciation of society's diverse uses of river resources. In doing so it promotes interest-based participation as intended by legislation.