Fluvial channels encounter a backwater reach when they approach a standing body of water, and recent studies have shown that the transition from normal flow to backwater-influenced flow is associated with sediment mass extraction through deposition. Here we test the hypothesis that systematic changes in the geometry of channel-belt deposits and sedimentary architecture occur across this transition, using data from the late Holocene Mississippi (southern USA) and Rhine (The Netherlands) fluvio-deltaic systems. We use the estimated backwater length and average channel width as characteristic length scales to non-dimensionalize the downstream trends in channel-belt width for these systems. The collapsed data follow similar trends, suggesting that the observed variations in channel-belt geometry and fluvio-deltaic stratigraphy are tied to the location of the backwater transition zone. These findings suggest a unifying hydraulic control on fluvio-deltaic channel belts and provide a new framework for predicting and understanding the properties of ancient rivers in the coastal zone.