The mean annual transfer (loss and retention) of nitrogen in a river system was estimated using a conceptual approach based on water surface area and runoff. Two different approaches for the calculation of water surface area were applied to determine riverine nitrogen retention in four European catchments, ranging between 860–14,000 km2 in area, and differing considerably in the proportion and distribution of surface waters, specific runoff and specific nutrient emissions. The transfer rate was estimated sequentially as either the mean value for the total catchment, on a sub-catchment scale, or considering the distribution of water surface area within a sub-catchment. For the latter measure, nitrogen retention in larger lakes was calculated separately. Nitrogen emissions modelled with MONERIS and HBV-N were used to calculate nitrogen river loads and compare those with observed loads. Inclusion of the proportion of water area within a sub-catchment improved modelled results in catchment with large lakes in sub-catchments, but not where there was a homogenous distribution of surface waters among sub-catchments.

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