Riparian buffers have the potential to improve stream water quality in agricultural landscapes. This potential may vary in response to landscape characteristics such as soils, topography, land use, and human activities, including legacies of historical land management. We built a predictive model to estimate the sediment and phosphorus load reduction that should be achievable following the implementation of riparian buffers; then we estimated load reduction potential for a set of 1598 watersheds (average 54 km2) in Wisconsin. Our results indicate that land cover is generally the most important driver of constituent loads in Wisconsin streams, but its influence varies among pollutants and according to the scale at which it is measured. Physiographic (drainage density) variation also influenced sediment and phosphorus loads. The effect of historical land use on present-day channel erosion and variation in soil texture are the most important sources of phosphorus and sediment that riparian buffers cannot attenuate. However, in most watersheds, a large proportion (approximately 70%) of these pollutants can be eliminated from streams with buffers. Cumulative frequency distributions of load reduction potential indicate that targeting pollution reduction in the highest 10% of Wisconsin watersheds would reduce total phosphorus and sediment loads in the entire state by approximately 20%. These results support our approach of geographically targeting nonpoint source pollution reduction at multiple scales, including the watershed scale. ?? 2008 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.