Dams impound the majority of rivers and provide important societal benefits, especially daily water releases that enable on-peak hydroelectricity generation. Such “hydropeaking” is common worldwide, but its downstream impacts remain unclear. We evaluated the response of aquatic insects, a cornerstone of river food webs, to hydropeaking using a life history–hydrodynamic model. Our model predicts that aquatic-insect abundance will depend on a basic life-history trait—adult egg-laying behavior—such that open-water layers will be unaffected by hydropeaking, whereas ecologically important and widespread river-edge layers, such as mayflies, will be extirpated. These predictions are supported by a more-than-2500-sample, citizen-science data set of aquatic insects from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and by a survey of insect diversity and hydropeaking intensity across dammed rivers of the Western United States. Our study reveals a hydropeaking-related life history bottleneck that precludes viable populations of many aquatic insects from inhabiting regulated rivers.