At a national scale the management of hydrological data within the UK has been undertaken within a number of institutions beginning with the Inland Water Survey in the 1930s and 1940s. Responsibility passed to the Surface Water Survey of Great Britain in the 1950s, and, from 1964, the Water Resources Board; the latter was responsible for a rapid growth in the gauging station network and creation of a computer-based National River Flow Archive. In 1974 the work of collecting and publishing surface water information then passed to the newly created Water Data Unit of the Department of the Environment (DoE). In 1982 the Surface Water Archive was transferred to NERC and run within the Institute of Hydrology, now the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. A more detailed description of the history and evolution of river flow measurement and the management of river flow data can be found in the 1985 Yearbook article Inland water surveying in the United Kingdom - a short history.
The National River Flow Archive, and its precursor organisations, traditionally focused on the provision of daily and monthly river flow data. In 2014, the provision of UK wide flood peak data was transferred to the NRFA to enable fully integrated delivery of both key national datasets.