Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus in European rivers: 2000-2050

Harry Blaas*, Carolien Kroeze

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

48 Citations (Scopus)


Rivers export nutrients to coastal waters. Excess nutrient export may result in harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, affecting biodiversity, fisheries, and recreation. The purpose of this study is to quantify for European rivers (1) the extent to which N and P loads exceed levels that minimize the risk of harmful algal blooms and (2) the relative shares of sources of N and P in rivers. This may help to identify effective management strategies to reduce coastal eutrophication. We focus on 48 rivers in 27 countries of the European Union (EU27). We used the Global Nutrient Export from Watersheds (NEWS) model to analyze nutrient export by rivers and the associated potentials for coastal eutrophication as reflected by Indicator for Coastal Eutrophication Potential (ICEP). In 2000, 38 of the 48 EU rivers indicated in our study had an ICEP > 0, indicating a relatively high potential for harmful algal blooms. These 38 rivers cover 60% of EU27 land area. Between 2000 and 2050 nutrient export by European rivers is projected to decrease. However, by 2050 still 34 EU rivers, covering 48% of the land area, have an ICEP > 0. This indicates that in these scenarios little progress is made in terms of environmental improvement. About one-third of the rivers with ICEP > 0 are N limited, and about two-thirds P limited. In N-limited rivers reducing N loads is a more effective way to reduce the risk for coastal eutrophication than reducing P, and vice versa. For N-limited rivers agriculture or sewage are the dominant sources of nutrients in river water. In P-limited rivers, sewage is found to be the dominant source of P, except for rivers draining into the Atlantic Ocean, where agriculture can also be dominant. A basin-specific approach is needed to effectively reduce N and P loads.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)328-337
JournalEcological Indicators
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Algal blooms
  • Coastal waters
  • Eutrophication
  • Indicator
  • Nutrients
  • Rivers


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