Transport and transformation of nitrate was evaluated along a 1-km groundwater transect from an almond orchard to the Merced River, California, USA, within an irrigated agricultural setting. As indicated by measurements of pore-water nitrate and modeling using the root zone water quality model, about 63% of the applied nitrogen was transported through a 6.5-m unsaturated zone. Transport times from recharge locations to the edge of a riparian zone ranged from approximately 6 months to greater than 100 years. This allowed for partial denitrification in horizons having mildly reducing conditions, and essentially no denitrification in horizons with oxidizing conditions. Transport times across a 50-100-m-wide riparian zone of less than a year to over 6 years and more strongly reducing conditions resulted in greater rates of denitrification. Isotopic measurements and concentrations of excess N2 in water were indicative of denitrification with the highest rates below the Merced River. Discharge of water and nitrate into the river was dependent on gradients driven by irrigation or river stage. The results suggest that the assimilative capacity for nitrate of the groundwater system, and particularly the riverbed, is limiting the nitrate load to the Merced River in the study area. © Springer-Verlag 2007.