Abstract This paper examines the hydraulic properties (i.e. velocity and discharge) of the main late prehistoric canals of the Moche Valley. Velocities, estimated from excavated canal sections using the Manning flow equation, are compared to tables of maximum permissible velocities and reveal that canals were constructed to transport water efficiently, but that on gradients steeper than 1:100 the Chimu and Inca engineers were unable to transport large discharges without severe erosional problems. Discharge estimates are compared with modern field requirements, using a known ethnographic watering cycle. This demonstrates that in almost every instance the channel size was of the same order of magnitude as that predicted from the requirements. The construction of the Inter-valley canal to bring water to the state lands in Moche was a technological disaster.