Harmful algal blooms dominated by the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia spp. have become a perennial but variable event within surface waters near the greater Los Angeles area. Toxic blooms during spring seasons from 2005 to 2007 varied strongly in their overall toxicity and duration. Differences in bloom dynamics were linked to differences in storm-induced river discharge following episodic rain events and coastal upwelling, both major coastal processes that led to the injection of nutrients into coastal surface waters. Heavy river runoff during early 2005, a record-rainfall year, favored a phytoplankton community mainly comprised of algal taxa other than Pseudo-nitzschia. The spring bloom during 2005 was associated with low domoic acid surface concentrations and minor contributions of (mainly) P. delicatissima to the diatom assemblage. In contrast, highly toxic P. australis-dominated blooms during spring seasons of 2006 and 2007 were linked to strong upwelling events. River discharge quotas in 2006 and 2007, in contrast to 2005, fell well below annual averages for the region. Surface toxin levels were linked to colder, more saline (i.e. upwelled) water over the 3-year study, but no such consistent relationship between domoic acid levels and other physiochemical parameters, such as macronutrient concentrations or nutrient ratios, was observed.