Management of river basins involves the making of informed choices about the desired levels of economic activities and ecosystem functioning in the catchment. Information on the economic and ecological effects of measures as well as their spatial distribution is therefore needed. This paper proposes the following instruments to support decision-making in river basins: (1) the linking of models and indicators to describe the economic and ecological effects of management actions and their spatial distribution and (2) an extended evaluation framework that aims to evaluate management actions on three objectives for sustainable river management. These are cost-effectiveness, spatial equity, and environmental quality. This paper illustrates the potential of these instruments for river basin management by a case-study on nutrient management in the Rhine basin. In this case-study four nutrient abatement strategies are formulated, based on policies of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine and the North Sea Commission. These strategies are analysed and evaluated on their contribution to the three management objectives. Results show that none of these strategies score highest on cost-effectiveness, spatial equity and environmental quality simultaneously. It appears that cost-effectiveness is in conflict with environmental quality, whereas spatial equity and cost-effectiveness show quite close correspondence. This means that a trade-off has to be made between costs and spatial equity on the one hand, and environmental standards on the other hand. This paper offers a framework to make these trade-offs more explicit and provides quantitative information on cause-effect relationships, economic and environmental effects and the spatial distribution of these effects for various management strategies. This information can be particularly useful in the development of compromises required to establish international agreement and co-operation. © 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.