In many European rivers, including the major streams of the Rhine and Elbe basins, the nutrient load (N and P) still exceeds target levels. In this paper, a model is presented that describes the river nutrient load as a function of nutrient sources, runoff and lithology in the upstream basin. The model was tested with independent data on nutrient sources (input) and nutrient river load (output) for 130 specific combinations of sub-basins and 5 year periods. A wide range of river systems within the Rhine and Elbe basins were included and the analysis covers a period of 25 years from 1970 to 1995. Most of the observed spatial and temporal variation in the average annual river nutrient load was successfully described by the model. It is therefore concluded that the model can be used to predict the effect of changes in nutrient sources (e.g. reduction of livestock numbers, further improvement of waste water treatment plants etc.) on the average annual nutrient loads of the rivers Rhine, Elbe and their main tributaries.