The current study focuses on understanding key factors controlling geochemical export in eight diverse coastal watersheds at seasonal and annual time scales. Geochemical, atmospheric and hydrologic data across a range of hydro-climatic regimes and varying land uses were investigated and relationships analysed. A hyperbolic dilution model was fitted for each watershed system to evaluate discharge–concentration relationships. Nitrate concentration effects were observed in watersheds exposed to high atmospheric deposition rates as well as agricultural watersheds, whereas urban watersheds showed nitrate dilution effects. Dilution patterns were observed for calcium, magnesium and sulfate for almost all watersheds. Seasonal loads for almost all constituents were noted to be mainly driven by hydrologic seasonality, but are also dependent on inputs (atmospheric deposition and land use sources). Understanding the primary controls on hydro-chemical interactions is critical for developing and refining predictive water quality models, especially in coastal watersheds where sensitive downstream ecosystems act as receiving waters for upstream pollutant loads. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.