The roles of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) as key nutrients determining the trophic status of water bodies are examined, and evidence reviewed for trends in concentrations of N and P species which occur in freshwaters, primarily in northern temperate environments. Data are reported for water bodies undergoing eutrophication and acidification, especially water bodies receiving increased nitrogen inputs through the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen oxides (NOx). Nutrient loading on groundwaters and surface freshwaters is assessed with respect to causes and rates of change, relative rates of change for N and P, and implications of change for the future management of lakes, rivers and groundwaters. In particular, the nature and emphasis of studies for N species and P fractions in lakes versus rivers and groundwaters are contrasted. This review paper primarily focuses on results from North America and Europe, particularly for the UK where a wide range of data sets exists. Few nutrient loading data have been published on water bodies in less developed countries; however, some of the available data are presented to provide a global perspective. In general, N and P concentrations have increased dramatically (>20 times background concentrations) in many areas and causes vary considerably, ranging from urbanization to changes in agricultural practices.