Animals have a remarkable ability to use local cues to orient in space in the absence of a panoramic fixed reference frame. Here we use the mechanosensory lateral line in larval zebrafish to understand rheotaxis, an innate oriented swimming evoked by water currents. We generated a comprehensive light-microscopy cell-resolution projectome of lateralis afferent neurons (LANs) and used clustering techniques for morphological classification. We find surprising structural constancy among LANs. Laser-mediated microlesions indicate that precise topographic mapping of lateral-line receptors is not essential for rheotaxis. Recording neuronal-activity during controlled mechanical stimulation of neuromasts reveals unequal representation of water-flow direction in the hindbrain. We explored potential circuit architectures constrained by anatomical and functional data to suggest a parsimonious model under which the integration of lateralized signals transmitted by direction-selective LANs underlies the encoding of water-flow direction in the brain. These data provide a new framework to understand how animals use local mechanical cues to orient in space.