Coupled hydrology and water quality models are an important tool today, used in the understanding and management of surface water and watershed areas. Such problems are generally subject to substantial uncertainty in parameters, process understanding, and data. Component models, drawing on different data, concepts, and structures, are affected differently by each of these uncertain elements. This paper proposes a framework wherein the response of component models to their respective uncertain elements can be quantified and assessed, using a hydrological model and water quality model as two exemplars. The resulting assessments can be used to identify model coupling strategies that permit more appropriate use and calibration of individual models, and a better overall coupled model response. One key finding was that an approximate balance of water quality and hydrological model responses can be obtained using both the QUAL2E and Mike11 water quality models. The balance point, however, does not support a particularly narrow surface response (or stringent calibration criteria) with respect to the water quality calibration data, at least in the case examined here. Additionally, it is clear from the results presented that the structural source of uncertainty is at least as significant as parameter-based uncertainties in areal models. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.