A novel adsorbent material, i.e., zirconium-cationic surfactant modified activated carbon (ZrSMAC) was prepared by loading zirconium hydroxide and hexadecyltrimethylammonium chloride (CTAC) on activated carbon, and was used as an adsorbent for nitrate and phosphate removal from aqueous solution. The adsorption characteristics of nitrate and phosphate on ZrSMAC from aqueous solution were investigated in batch mode. Results showed that the ZrSMAC was effective for nitrate and phosphate removal from aqueous solution. The pseudo-second-order kinetic model fitted both the nitrate and phosphate kinetic experimental data well. The equilibrium isotherm data of nitrate adsorption onto the ZrSMAC were well fitted to the Langmuir, Dubinin-Radushkevich (D-R) and Freundlich isotherm models. The equilibrium isotherm data of phosphate adsorption onto the ZrSMAC could be described by the Langmuir and,D- R isotherm models. According to the Langmuir isotherm model, the maximum nitrate and phosphate adsorption capacities for the ZrSMAC were 7.58 mg x g(-1) and 10.9 mg x g(-1), respectively. High pH value was unfavorable for nitrate and phosphate adsorption onto the ZrSMAC. The presence of Cl-, HCO3- and SO4(2-) in solution reduced the nitrate and phosphate adsorption capacities for the ZrSMAC. The nitrate adsorption capacity for the ZrSMAC was reduced by the presence of coexisting phosphate in solution, and the phosphate adsorption capacity for the ZrSMAC was also reduced by the presence of coexisting nitrate in solution. About 90% of nitrate adsorbed on the ZrSMAC could be desorbed in 1 mol x L(-1) NaCl solution, and about 78% of phosphate adsorbed on the ZrSMAC could be desorbed in 1 mol x L(-1) NaOH solution. The adsorption mechanism of nitrate on the ZrSMAC included the anion exchange interactions and electrostatic attraction, and the adsorption mechanism of phosphate on the ZrSMAC included the ligand exchange interaction, electrostatic attraction and anion exchange interaction.