Evaluation of stream–aquifer interaction and water balance for a catchment often requires specific information on streambed parameters, such as streambed hydraulic conductivity, seepage flux across the streambed and so on. This paper describes a simple, inexpensive instrument that is used to measure these streambed parameters under the condition of a stream disconnected from groundwater. Our method includes a seepage cylinder for simulation of river water depth. The proposed method was applied to estimate the vertical hydraulic conductivity of a streambed and the changes in vertical seepage rate from stream to groundwater with varied stream water depth in the Manasi River of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China. The vertical hydraulic conductivities of the streambed determined from 12 sites along the Manasi River vary from 1.01 to 29.m/day where the stream disconnects from the groundwater. The experimental results suggest that there are two kinds of relations between the vertical seepage rate and the simulated stream water depth. One is a linear relation between the two variables with low Reynolds numbers (less than 10); the other is a nonlinear relation (exponential relation) between the two variables with larger Reynolds numbers (greater than 10). This second relationship is quite different from the traditional model that usually calculates the vertical seepage rate from stream to groundwater under the condition of disconnection using a linear relation (Darcy's Law). Our results suggest that a linear relation can only be used for a limited range of river water depth. This method gives a convenient tool for rapidly estimating the streambed hydraulic conductivity and the changes in the vertical seepage rate across streambed with varied stream water depths for the case of a stream disconnected from groundwater. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.