Elkhorn Slough is a small estuary in Central California, where nutrient inputs are dominated by runoff from agricultural row crops, a golf course, and residential development. We examined the variability in nutrient concentrations from decadal to hourly time scales in Elkhorn Slough to compare forcing by physical and biological factors. Hourly data were collected using in situ nitrate analyzers and water quality data sondes, and two decades of monthly monitoring data were analyzed. Nutrient concentrations increased from the mid 1970s to 1990s as pastures and woodlands were converted to row crops and population increased in the watershed. Climatic variability was also a significant factor controlling interannual nutrient variability, with higher nutrient concentrations during wet than drought years. Elkhorn Slough has a Mediterranean climate with dry and rainy seasons. Dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) concentrations were relatively low (10-70 ??mol L-1) during the dry season and high (20-160 ??mol L-1) during the rainy season. Dissolved inorganic phosphorus (DIP) concentrations showed the inverse pattern, with higher concentrations during the dry season. Pulsed runoff events were a consistent feature controlling nitrate concentrations during the rainy season. Peak nitrate concentrations lagged runoff events by 1 to 6 days. Tidal exchange with Monterey Bay was also an important process controlling nutrient concentrations, particularly near the mouth of the Slough. Biological processes had the greatest effect on nitrate concentrations during the dry season and were less important during the rainy season. While primary production was enhanced by nutrient pulses, chlorophyll a concentrations were not. We believe that the generally weak biological response compared to the strong physical forcing in Elkhorn Slough occurred because the short residence time and tidal mixing rapidly diluted nutrient pulses. ?? 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.