Chlorophyll-a concentration variations are described for two major river basins in England, the Humber and the Thames and related to catchment characteristics and nutrient concentrations across a range of rural, agricultural and urban/industrial settings. For all the rivers there are strong seasonal variations, with concentrations peaking in the spring and summer time when biological activity is at its highest. However, there are large variations in the magnitude of the seasonal effects across the rivers. For the spring–summer low-flow periods, average concentrations of chlorophyll-a correlate with soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP). Chlorophyll-a is also correlated with particulate nitrogen (PN), organic carbon (POC) and suspended sediments. However, the strongest relationships are with catchment area and flow, where two straight line relationships are observed. The results indicate the importance of residence times for determining planktonic growth within the rivers. This is also indicated by the lack of chlorophyll-a response to lowering of SRP concentrations in several of the rivers in the area due to phosphorus stripping of effluents at major sewage treatment works. A key control on chlorophyll-a concentration may be the input of canal and reservoir waters during the growing period: this too relates to issues of residence times. However, there may well be a complex series of factors influencing residence time across the catchments due to features such as inhomogeneous flow within the catchments, a fractal distribution of stream channels that leads to a distribution of residence times and differences in planktonic inoculation sources. Industrial pollution on the Aire and Calder seems to have affected the relationship of chlorophyll-a with PN and POC. The results are discussed in relation to the Water Framework Directive.